Harajuku Zoo is only my second look at a Sweatdrop title, and to be honest I picked it up mainly because it had a pipe-smoking, cynical looking hedgehog called Carlos in it. Look, things like this pique my interest ok?
The story itself is set in Tokyo, where two mutually
antagonistic teenage sisters share a tiny flat. The sisters clash in most
things, not least their fashion - older sister Ami is a 'gothic lolita' sporting
sombre colours and lace, whilst younger sister Ruriko is a label-obsessed 'Kogal',
festooned with jewellery, cute accessories and the latest fashions. As you
can guess a shopping trip isn't the most harmonious of days out, but things take
a turn for the strange on their latest one. Ruriko buys some new plastic
animal figures in an arcade, normal enough you may think, but an ill-advised
wish brings them to life! Now Ami and Ruriko have a group of confused, talking
animals to share their already cramped flat with - Sakura the rabbit, Sven the
bear, Ponpon the koala and Carlos the hedgehog. The animals can remember
their previous lives but not how they ended up as toys in a Japanese vending
machine, however, the biggest problem now is how to settle into their new life
in the big city...
Harajuku Zoo is, as you probably guessed from the description above, a light-hearted comedy, and it's a very good one too. The cute characters have more depth than you would expect and the story throws up plenty of laughs, whether Sven pretending to be a Swedish diplomat by wearing a fake moustache or Carlos' incessant pessimism. Despite its cuteness Harajuku Zoo does have quite a wicked sense of humour (chav bears!) and manages to avoid the cloying sweetness you would probably expect from the look of the art. However, setting it in Japan is a bit of a double edged sword. Whilst the setting suits it and allows for a culture-clash aspect (none of the animals are from Japan), it does lead to a lot of explaining of Japanese terms and traditions.
The problem I often have with the Western manga I have read though has been the art.
Some artists seem to try too hard to draw in a manga style and the artwork's quality and individuality suffers as a result. Joanna Zhou doesn't need to mimic someone else's manga style, she has a style of her own. Her art suits the story perfectly, with the cute character designs and simple backgrounds really brought to life by a great skill with expressions and facial features. She manages to capture the characters moods and personalities effortlessly and displays great comic timing for the many gags.
Harajuku Zoo issue 1 is a joy to read and will leave
you wishing for more, in fact that's the only real problem - at just 32 pages
long and with no timescale given for a second issue it's over all too quickly.
What there is though is very good, Joanna Zhou has created a sweet and highly
enjoyable tale with a unique style that keeps you smiling throughout. The
art is simple but effective where it matters - in the facial expressions - and
the comedy is fun and well executed. Whether you believe these kind of
things are real manga or not, Harajuku Zoo issue 1 is a great example of
how enjoyable they can be. Give it a go, it's worth it, and roll on issue
Quite a lot for such a short book, a brief intro is supported by character descriptions and adverts for other Sweatdrop series. However, the main extra are the 'Infoballs' scattered liberally throughout. These Infoballs give bite-sized and unpatronising explanations of some of the more eclectic aspects of the story. From koala pouches to Japanese fashion, the Infoballs are informative on a number of different subjects and are not overused. Good stuff!