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Ningyou Kyoutei Gakudan (Royal Doll Orchestra) – Kaori Yuki

What? I’ve had this site for two years and I haven’t reviewed any Kaori Yuki?! This simply will not do!

I don’t think “quest” quite covers the odyssey that was finding the final volume in a language which I could read it in… Like most things I started reading Ningyou Kyoutei Gakudan online on a manga reader, and then it started being updated less and less frequently – until it stopped entirely for over a year. Word came that it was licensed, the jig was up and if you want to see how the story ends – fork out! “Okay,” I thought to myself. “That’s fair enough. I’ll support Kaori-sensei’s work; she’s so good I’ll be just staring at the artwork for years.” I went to the bookshops that sell manga in my area. No luck; fair enough, most UK chain-stores think that Naruto, Bleach and Death Note are the only mangas in existence. I go on Amazon; no, no UK-based sellers – just some hideously-expensive US editions, some raws and lots of ads for Angel Sanctuary. I pushed it to the back of my mind with a sigh, when lo and behold! Almost a year later in a large bookshop in Montpellier (a city in the South of France) where I was for a summer school, what should I find but a whacking great manga section! On the off-chance, I looked under “K” and voila! There it was. And cheaper than dear old Britain too. I’ve been using French scanlation sites to improve my translation skills for a while now, so language wasn’t a problem; it even came with the one-shot Camelot Garden as a bonus. Victory is sweet.

Anyway. Epic quest over, let’s get reviewing. The Shadow Royal Orchestra is made up of dubious-looking misfits with a penchant for finding trouble: An androgynous conductor/chanteur with a silver tongue, a psychopathic violinist and a gentle giant on double bass who becomes far less gentle if you touch his pet hedgehog, (no that isn’t a euphemism). Despite being like this, their music has the power to subdue the guignols, humans that fell victim to the dreaded Galatea  syndrome and became flesh-eating dolls as a consequence. What adventures will the Orchestra chance upon, and – more importantly – who will they pick up along the way?  

It’s Kaori Yuki, which for those of you who don’t know translates as mind-twisting, gender-bending, horror, Victorian/Edwardian aesthetic, apocolyptic fun. As always with Kaori-sensei, she manages to convey some of the most horrific things (read: zombie bloodbath in this case) with some of the most beautiful line-drawings that you will ever come across anywhere. It is the femme fatale of manga artwork, beautiful but complicated. It’s extremely easy with Kaori-sensei’s work, not just Ningyou Kyoutei Gakudan,  to forget that she’s technically a shoujo artist. Well, no clutzy, earnest heroines here – the Orchestra are pretty god-damned rock ‘n’ roll as characters go – or indeed predictable plotting. She goes very deliberately out of her way to lead you down false avenues, whilst chucking the odd real clue in with the red herrings just to give you a chance to keep in on the act.

Ningyou Kyoutei Gakudan is a beautifully-crafted story that never becomes episodic, which is forever a danger in journey-based narratives, but builds gradually and economically to a dazzling finale that satisfies you just enough to reward your time and effort – but leaves you curious about the fates of the characters concerned. Each of those characters has their moment in the spotlight and is allowed to gradually unfurl their story to the reader.

It’s not just horror, splat and gore – it’s poetry in manga: 5 out of 5 stars. Although a word to the wise: Read too much in one go and you do begin day-dreaming in Kaori-vision.

Stay tuned folks!

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