From the stack: Grand Guignol Orchestra

“I like an anything goes approach,” Kaori Yuki assets in one of her creator’s notes in the first volume of Grand Guignol Orchestra (Viz.) This statement is about as close as Yuki comes to understatement anywhere in this paperback. And that’s fine.

Given that Grand Guignol Orchestra is a sort-of period piece about a group of musicians who fight zombies, one should only expect so much restraint, and given that it’s by Yuki, one would be lucky to find any restraint at all. It’s not one of her defining characteristics, and I can’t imagine that it would really be one of her strengths.

I say this as someone who hasn’t read a ton of Yuki’s work. I found the first couple of her Godchild to be visually impressive but so clumsily translated and adapted that I couldn’t bear to read any more. Camellia Neigh’s work on Grand Guignol Orchestra is much more fluid and lucid, though still tinged with that special brand of Yuki madness. Her stories will probably only ever be mostly lucid, I suspect, because she’s very invested in atmosphere and, as she confesses, “anything goes.”

There’s an undeniable charm in the idea of musicians being the only thing that can destroy zombies (zombies that look like dolls, no less). It’s sort of like Mars Attacks!, but much more sincere, and the music isn’t just a gag at the end. The orchestra itself is more of a combo, starting with three members and adding a fourth by the end of their first adventure. Membership seems limited to the androgynous and the thuggish, though only half the regular cast is properly developed in this first volume.

Yuki is fond of twists, and things are seldom entirely what they seem. She has mixed success with the reveals; sometimes they’ve got a creepy jolt, sometimes they’re just mildly confusing. But it’s nice to see some narrative punch mixed in with the faux-European aesthetic (which you cannot deny is lovingly, sometimes ravishingly rendered) and the sly-cool cast of characters.

As is usually the case with Yuki’s work (in my admittedly limited experience), the real successes come in the form of smartly conceptualized horror. In this case, it’s the guignols themselves, disease-stricken innocents who’ve become a kind of cracked-porcelain zombie. Yuki adds a layer of sweetness and powder to the decay, which always makes it more unsettling, at least in my opinion.

But while Yuki’s work always has its points of appeal, I’m never entirely sold. She strikes me as having the potential to become a more commercial Junko Mizuno if she could just strike that balance between creative focus and intellectual abandon and emotional shamelessness. Yuki seems to be always on the verge and never quite there, at least yet. But I do love to see a reliably popular creator in any comics category who also seems at least a little bit deranged.

(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher. Grand Guignol Orchestra was originally serialized in Hakusensha’s Bessatsu Hana to Yume.)

9 Responses to From the stack: Grand Guignol Orchestra

  1. Aaron says:

    It seems like an interesting volume and Kaori Yuki has always been one of those Mangaka I have meant to check out. But I always just feel like I should go back and read Angel Sanctuary before I read anything else.

  2. Jade Harris says:

    How do you see a connection to Junko Mizuno? In the vein of that ‘Anything Goes’ sort of style or is there more to it?

    • davidpwelsh says:

      It’s mostly the “anything goes” spirit, but I can also see some similarities in the ways that they deal with horrific content. Mizuno, in my assessment, makes it cute, but still horrific, and Yuki makes it glamorous, but still horrific. I think both try and re-purpose gross and shocking content within their own styles, though obviously with very different… philosophies, maybe?

      On another front, neither seems to be outwardly married to a concrete narrative. I think Mizuno is more successful in abandoning that for the sake of specific effects, and I can foresee a time when Yuki could achieve something similar. In moments, she actually does, but not consistently.

      It’s probably not a great analogy, though.

      • Jade Harris says:

        Hmmm…since you explain it that way, I do kind of see it, but I think they make a really interesting contrast at the same time. I see Mizuno doling out her cutesy, horrorific style with the surgical precision of objectivity with full power to the forward irony array. Yuki, I think, is much more earnest but with a distinct level of self-awareness that she chooses to ignore in order to just have fun with the content. I’m never really sure what Mizuno’s trying to say, but Yuki is saying she loves doing what she does.

        In between, I’d put Rei Mikamoto who penned Reiko the Zombie Shop. Overall, she delights in the distasteful with a relatively straight delivery like John Waters (no pun intended) and you can really tell she truly loves this stuff under all the jokes and pokes. That personal endearment to the content is never really apparent with Mizuno whose every work may likely be a scathing indictment of a pop culture she abhors.

      • davidpwelsh says:

        That’s a much more interesting and persuasive juxtaposition of their bodies of work than I managed. Thanks! I really enjoyed reading it.

      • Jade Harris says:

        Honestly, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought if you hadn’t made the connection first though.

  3. Nikki says:

    That’s a pretty spot-on description of Yuki’s work, that it always seems to be on the verge. I think her earlier works have more of the balance you mentioned, between aesthetics and narrative, but as she hit the ‘commercialized’ rank she seems to waver a lot more. For masterful mangaka in the field of goth-shojo deranged horrific, i’d sooner read a Mitsukazu Mihara or Kusumoto Maki.

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