Guideau and Ashaf arrive in Crimson City. They are looking for a witch. Guideau is blonde, chic, with a feral, fanged smile, inhuman eyes and an insatiable appetite; Ashaf smokes all the time, is smartly dressed, carries a coffin on his back and can summon crows. We learn later on that Ashaf is a member of the Order of Magical Resonance and a mage. As to the true purpose of the coffin…? And there is a witch in Crimson City: Lady Ione, the city’s hero, loved and respected by all as she protects the citizens from marauding magical beasts. But Guideau doesn’t believe that any witch is capable of doing good; she is the bearer of a witch’s curse and is desperately searching for the one who laid the curse on her. She’ll destroy any other witches she encounters on her quest – and anyone who supports them. They meet one of Ione’s apprentices, a young woman who has a deep faith in her mistress’s good intentions. Even though they witness Ione intervene to protect the citizens from a monstrous magical beast, Guideau is unshakeable in her desire to expose what she believes to be Ione’s true nature. As young women fans and apprentices gather at Ione’s mansion for an ‘anniversary’, Ashaf does some research as to what this anniversary might be commemorating. When Ashaf learns the truth, it may already be too late to prevent a catastrophe…
The striking cover art for The Witch and the Beast exemplifies what is best about this new series, hinting at sophistication and an elegant backdrop of Western architecture. Debut mangaka Kousuke Satake has a distinctive style, well suited to the dark fantasy/horror elements of The Witch and the Beast. They devote many panels to action sequences, varying the panel size to obtain maximum impact when Guideau is confronting a witch and the air is zinging with magical attacks or a vast monster has appeared. But this is also a very dark manga – dark in shading as well as in theme and atmosphere and some of the darkest panels don’t work that well, leaving too much in muddy obscurity. Satake’s character designs are different too but not very attractive. I’m not saying that everyone should look pretty or handsome – far from it! – but the facial expressions are so consistently blank or menacing, even when smiling, that everyone seems to exude a sinister aura.
The magical battles are truly impressive (kudos here to letterer Phil Christie for a bravura display of their art with all the SFX impressively rendered!) – and the cityscapes, reminiscent of eastern European streets and plazas: Vienna, Budapest, Prague, are wonderfully atmospheric. But there’s something lacking…
‘A dark, stylish fantasy for fans of xxxHOLiC and Noragami!’ proclaims the blurb – but as a fan of both those series, I have to say that The Witch and the Beast lacks one vital aspect that both these supernatural manga possess: sympathetic main characters. We can relate to Kimihiro Watanuki, the boy haunted by spirits that others can’t see – and we can equally relate to schoolgirl Hiyori and her complex relationship with shrine-less god Yato; both these employ effective ways of involving the reader and making the supernatural events they experience believable. We’re drawn into the narrative because we identify with their situation, we understand their bemusement when amazing things happen to them and we fear for them when they encounter monsters and yokai. However, neither Guideau or Ashaf are sympathetically drawn, either graphically or in the text. This is partly because Guideau tends to express herself by snarling or exposing her fangs. Ashaf’s features are delicate (is something else hidden implied here?) but often expressionless or twisted in a knowing smile. They’re not a pair you’d feel comfortable to share a train carriage with (even if you could ignore the portable coffin). And whatever binds them together, it’s not any kind of affection; quite the opposite! “Once my curse is broken,” Guideau says to Ashaf, “you’re first in line. I’m killing you first.” It’s published in a seinen magazine, which might explain the emphasis on the grimdark aspects.
Looking ahead to the next volume, the blurb confirms that this is a series with individual cases, joined together by an overarching plot: Guideau needs to find the witch to remove the curse before… Even though it’s not explained in this volume, the rose cursemark on her throat is reminiscent of the vampire curse in Setona Mizushiro’s Black Rose Alice (2008) where the vampires exhibit a similar mark which, when it encircles their throat completely, means that they will cease to exist.
The first volume in print from Kodansha Comics has a generous six glossy colour pages at the start and the cover design by My Truong (from the original by Yusuke Kurachi) is eye-catchingly rich and sombre. The translation is by Kevin Gifford and reads well, although there are no translation notes and no helpful afterword from the mangaka. It’s reached seven volumes in Japan and is ongoing; the second volume is already available from Kodansha.
If you enjoy the darker elements of dark fantasy and are looking for a new series to try, then The Witch and the Beast may well appeal to you. It’s early days yet, its main protagonists are intriguing though in no way endearing, and it frequently sacrifices substance for style. I’d describe it as an interesting but flawed debut.