Story & Art by Ryoko Kui
Translated by Taylor Engel
Lettered by Abigail Blackman
Much like how Ryoko Kui’s Delicious in Dungeon focuses on an eclectic group of characters finding common ground over their shared love of good food, Seven Little Sons of the Dragon depicts characters from different backgrounds, with distinct skills and perspectives, trying to understand each other. While the back copy proclaims that “no two stories in this collection are alike,” I’d argue they’re all thematically connected through messages of communication, reconciliation, and personal growth. That said, each story explores these ideas through very different characters, conflicts, and settings, showing the breadth of Kui’s imagination. Fans of Delicious in Dungeon may be surprised how serious some of these stories are; with the exception of the seventh story, none of these are tonally comedic, though there are some very funny moments. Like Delicious, however, each story is very sincere and heartfelt, optimistically musing about how people can overcome both external and personal challenges through trust and cooperation.
The collection starts with its heaviest stories first, “The Dragon Turret” and “The Mermaid Refuge,” and both focus on characters combating prejudice with empathy. The first page of “Dragon Turret” shows both generals in the war between Highland and Sealand giving the exact same speech about “retaking” the other country from “barbarians.” Kui immediately undercuts both sides’ legitimacy by interjecting a small panel showing one of the general’s jargon being perceived by soldiers as “blah blah blah,” following up with panels showing soldiers talking over the generals and reacting to other things obscuring panels where the generals are speaking. This sets the tone of the story, demonstrating the nonsense of their prejudice and highlighting the similarities of both sides.
“The Dragon Turret’s” protagonist, Julka, starts out loathing the people of the Sealand, indoctrinated into believing that they are untrustworthy barbarians but never having been there or met their people herself. During a blockade caused by a dragon nesting in the middle of the path between both countries, they form a temporary trading truce until the dragon leaves, fully intent on resuming the war afterward. After befriending the trader from Sealand and learning more about it from him, she laments the dragon making it difficult to travel between both countries, but then catches herself and realizes that if the dragon wasn’t there, they’d still be at war. When soldiers on both sides celebrate the dragon’s child’s first flight, they realize their similarities, making it impossible to continue villainizing the other and continue the war. Here, the conflict is resolved through communication; by actually taking time to talk, help, and share joy with each other, the fear of the other is vanquished and both sides become conscious of their shared humanity.
Meanwhile, “The Mermaid Refuge” explores a more difficult barrier of language and physiology that must be overcome. While their top halves physically resemble humans, they cannot speak human languages, so humans debate the humanity of mermaids themselves. This story delves into the darkest territory of all the stories, touching upon various forms of hate crimes inflicted on mermaids because of their dubious legal status like sex trafficking and murder. The perpetrators of violence against mermaids escape criminal punishment thanks to mermaids not being classified as humans, and it’s very hard not to reflect on real-world atrocities that’ve been justified through the dehumanization of other people based on race or nationality while reading this story. Perhaps dipping its toes into this territory was wading too far out of the story’s comfort zone, as unlike “The Dragon Turret,” the communication barrier between humans and mermaids can’t be easily resolved and isn’t by the story’s end. The story never questions the humanity of the mermaids, as protagonist Jun staunchly respects their sentience and saves their lives. Moreover, the mermaid repeatedly demonstrates she’s just as intelligent as most humans, showing her communicating and contemplating complex emotions.
The conflict is really between Jun and his mermaid-loathing friend Hama, who remains unconvinced of the mermaid’s humanity despite her displaying emotional intelligence by going through the effort to return his lost baseball. In the end, Jun isn’t able to change Hama’s mind, and later hurts the mermaid’s feelings by pushing her away when she tries to take him underwater to show him where she lives. Realizing that he needs to learn more about mermaids to spread awareness about them, these experiences encourage him to study marine research. It’s clear it’s possible for humans and mermaids to coexist harmoniously and considerately, so even if there are many challenges and prejudices to overcome, it’s a goal worth striving for. Ultimately, the story’s message is that both communication and combating stigmas take time, but being mindful of those prejudices and treating people with respect is worth pursuing.
Jun and Hama’s falling out in “The Mermaid Refuge” also touches upon the book’s other core theme of reconciliation; extolling compromise and emphasizing forgiveness to restore healthy relationships between people. At the end of “Mermaid Refuge,” Jun makes his case to Hama of why he’s passionate about studying the mermaids, and Hama decides to let go of his resentment and root for his friend’s dream.
Similarly, “Wolves Don’t Lie,” “Byakuroku the Penniless,” and “‘My Child is Precious,’ Cries the Dragon” are all stories about characters needing to let go of their grudges and mend personal relationships by being honest about their feelings. “Wolves Don’t Lie” and “Byakuroku” are specifically about strained parent-child relationships, where feelings of neglect and guilt have created a rift between family members. These are complicated feelings, where characters feel they are both the victim and the person responsible for their situation.
In “Wolves,” the werewolf-afflicted child of a mangaka mother who has written autobiographical manga about raising her son is upset that she seems to have made a career off of discussing her son’s condition but hasn’t considered his frustrations and desire for treatment. At the same time, the son also feels guilty for injuring his mother during one of his transformations and is grateful to her for always thinking of him. Similarly, the titular Byakuroku became estranged from his son after being betrayed by his apprentice and losing trust in people, stubbornly refusing to reach out to him for help. Ultimately, both of these relationships are mended through heart-to-heart conversations in which both parties reveal how they really feel, letting go of their apprehensions, and deciding to live together more cooperatively from then on.
In contrast, the reconciliation Yoh needs in “‘My Child is Precious’” isn’t with another person, but herself. She believes she must avenge her son’s murder at the hands of the king by assassinating the prince, closed off from forming new relationships in her single-minded obsession for revenge. After witnessing a dragon mother simply fly away rather than punish the person who pushed her egg off its nest, however, she realizes the futility of holding on to her anger, as even if she achieves her vengeance what was taken from her could never be recovered. Instead, she ends up forming a kinship with the surviving dragon newborn, replacing her lost relationship with a new one. While she doesn’t forgive the King, she lets go of her hate, deciding to live to help others rather than living to destroy her enemies.
Yoh embracing change also falls in line with the third broad theme explored in the book, personal growth. Many of the stories have an undercurrent of being coming of age stories, showing characters going through a transitional period in their lives and coming out of them matured and reassured in themselves. This feels specifically the focus of “My God” and “The Inutanis,” which feature young protagonists who aren’t confident in their abilities and future. Through encouragement, however, they realize that there is no one set path to success, and they have individual strengths that can be used transformatively. The most poignant scene in these stories, and perhaps the one that best encapsulates the themes of the book, is when the father of the protagonist in “My God” reassures her by explaining how life is cyclical; people and places may leave from your life, but they will be replaced by something new. The protagonists in all of these stories are, in some way, reacting to change in their lives and fearful of an uncertain future. Seven Little Sons of the Dragon’s thesis is ultimately to not fear new experiences, be willing to trust and communicate with other people, and embrace what the future holds.
Just as Kui explores different settings in her stories, she plays with artistic expression as well. Kui’s signature style comes across in every tale, with loose and round character designs wearing minimalist facial features, often stylized to be noseless. However, she takes opportunities to play around with different stylizations too, like the simplified and shapely character designs in the essay manga prologue of “Wolves Don’t Lie,” the ukiyo-e and classical japanese paintings designs of characters featured in “Byakuroku the Penniless,” and the more manzai-esque gag manga expressions donned by characters in “The Inutanis.” The different settings of the stories also allow her to explore all sorts of interesting backgrounds. She takes a minimalist approach to these too, often sculpting her linework in a way to create shapes and environments through negative spaces. A lot of these stories feel like Kui working through her interests and refining the style she prefers. After seeing how lovingly she pays attention to the details of her fantasy worlds and the designs of fantasy creatures in this collection, it’s no wonder why she went on to create a manga full of those fantastic elements in Delicious in Dungeon.
Overall, Seven Little Sons of the Dragon is a fascinating, entertaining, and thought-provoking collection of stories espousing the virtues of communication, trust, and making an effort to change. It’s also just a fascinating look at an artist finding their voice by writing and drawing things they’re interested in. Fans of Delicious in Dungeon will enjoy seeing some of the primordial foundations of Kui’s fantasy storytelling and humor in these stories. Even if you’re unfamiliar with her other series, this is still a fantastic collection of comics, showing off the depth of Kui’s skill as an artist and storyteller. They may lack dungeons, but these stories are still delicious.