Story/Art: Akira Toriyama
Translation/Adaptation: Alexander O. Smith
What They Say
When goofy inventor Senbei Norimaki creates a precocious robot named Arale, his masterpiece turns out to be more than he bargained for!
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers): Manga author Akira Toriyama is probably most familiar in the West for his perennially-popular Dragon Ball series and its various offshoots. His career was launched, however, by this series, which combines goofball humor with a keen awareness of the tropes of robot-centric anime and manga.
Senbei Norimaki, the main character (whose name is a pun on a variety of rice cracker), creates what he considers his masterwork as an inventor – a humanoid robot shaped like a little girl. He names the girl Arale (another, smaller variety of rice cracker, naturally), and while her strength and other abilities are superhuman, her straightforwardness and questioning nature are that of a small child. Norimaki soon realizes that Arale may not be the perfect creation that he had envisioned, and spends as much time trying to keep a handle on her as he does inventing new items and lusting after the beautiful women of Penguin Village.
I’m of the belief that humor is one of the most thankless genres to write, if only because what’s funny to one person may fall entirely flat with another. The humor in this volume is very hit-or-miss with me, but that’s primarily because the author approaches the various gags from several different angles, some of which resonate more than others. Many of the gags rely on a familiarity with the tropes and cliches of how robotic characters are normally presented in anime and manga; one of the first things that Arale does upon gaining self-awareness in the first chapter is ask Norimaki if he’s included any weaponry features (“tummy missiles”) in her body. There are also several amusing situations that arise as a result of the contrast between Arale’s apparent age and her complete lack of knowledge about the way human society functions. At least once a chapter, the characters seem to break the fourth wall and reflect on the fact that they’re manga characters.
These elements are what I find most enjoyable about the manga, whereas the more immature gags tend to largely miss the mark. There are repeated instances where the reader can’t avoid the fact that this is, above all else, a manga aimed at a juvenile male audience. There are several references to Norimaki’s continuing search for a wife and his weakness for attractive women, which is thrust to the foreground when he’s forced to do “research” on a certain body part that Arale is missing. That particular chapter turns out to have a more amusing resolution than one might first suspect, but it does feature quite a bit of peeping (with X-Ray specs, no less) and paints Norimaki as sexually uncontrollable and unlikable as a character. There are also a couple of gags based on Norimaki’s ownership of pornographic magazines, which come across as grasping at low-hanging fruit to me.
Whether or not the humor hits home will depend on the tastes of the individual reader, but I suspect that most readers could enjoy the manga on its artistic merits, if nothing else. Toriyama’s character designs have become ubiquitous in subsequent years because of his involvement in several high-profile video game titles (Dragon Quest and Chrono Trigger being two of my personal favorites) and the aforementioned mega-hit franchise, Dragon Ball, but even in this early series he displays a keen eye for character detail and a restrained style that’s different enough from the norm to be distinctive. While there isn’t much variance in Toriyama’s primary character “types” (Arale looks like a younger version of “Lucca” from Chrono Trigger, for example), it’s interested to see them reflected so early on in this work.
I’m personally a fan of more liberal translations into English, especially where humor is concerned; while it may be an otaku point of pride to experience a translation that retains as much Japanese flavor as possible (as a student of the Japanese language, I can understand this viewpoint as well), there is simply something about humor that often doesn’t translate directly from one language to another. This volume strikes a decent balance of using non-intrusive translation notes to convey the original intent of the more language-based gags while still providing enough context and finesse to make the dialog flow better in the English language.
Fans of Akira Toriyama’s body of work will definitely want to set aside some time to check out this volume, if only because it may help flesh out his reputation beyond the looming presence of Dragon Ball. Readers who enjoy humorous manga will likely be able to appreciate the nature and sheer variety of the gags presented here. For all others, the humor and subject matter may be a bit too hit-or-miss to commit to multiple volumes, but the first has enough charm that the twenty page preview provided on the Viz Manga website is certainly worth a look.
Content Grade: C+
Art Grade: A-
Text/Translation Grade: B
Age Rating: 13+
Released By: VizManga.com
Release Date: May 15th, 2005 (Print)
MSRP: $7.99 Print / $4.99 Digital