Warning: Spoilers ahead, although I deliberately cut the story short at the climax – which means that the last twenty or so pages of the chapter aren’t covered here.
Pediatric heart surgeon Dr. Shindou Mamoru saves the life of an infant boy named Saijou Mikoto, who was born with a serious congenital heart defect. Ten years later, Mikoto is a healthy young lad who aspires to become an even better surgeon than the man who saved him. He befriends Dr. Shindou and regularly pesters the man at Saihama Medical Centre with various demonstrations of his skill at sewing stuff up – all to make the doctor spill the beans on why he chose to become a pediatric surgeon.
After Mikoto skips gleefully out of the hospital (having shown off his latest feat of surgical skill), Dr. Shindou and his friend Dr. Mera Masayoshi have a chat about the lad’s intense interest in medical science. The conversation moves to Mikoto’s incredible spatial visualisation ability, and how even experienced physicians have a hard time creating accurate mental images of complex structures such as the human body – something that the child seems able to do quite effortlessly.
Next scene. Mikoto is out fishing in Saihama Port with a friend, Uozumi Rintarou. The wind knocks Rintarou off balance and causes him to hit his chest hard against the prow of their boat. Mikoto’s friend is clearly hurt, but he seems okay for now and even tries to shrug the incident off.
Back to the hospital. The two doctors are engaged in conversation when Dr. Shindou’s phone rings. Mikoto has some urgent news: Rintarou has collapsed onto the floor of their fishing boat, clutching his chest in pain. Dr. Shindou and Dr. Mera rush out to the harbour and hop into a motorboat to search for the two boys, but it’s getting dark and the prospects of finding such a small vessel – which by now has gone adrift somewhere in the huge harbour – are growing dim. The authorities have been alerted, yet even with air-sea rescue on the way it’s beginning to look as if the doctors will not reach the fishing boat in time to save the stricken boy.
Up to this point, Mikoto has been giving Dr. Shindou regular updates on his friend’s condition, which the child has diagnosed as traumatic cardiac tamponade. With Rintarou’s life now seriously in danger, Dr. Shindou throws all care about his prospects and reputation to the winds and issues a firm command to Mikoto:
“You’re going to save that kid.”
I’ve been looking forward to Saijou no Meii since news first broke that Hashiguchi Takashi was about to launch a new manga series. I’ve only read one other title by Hashiguchi-sensei (care to guess which one that is?), but I enjoyed it so much that I decided any subsequent works of his will get a free pass to my “Actively Following” list.
First, a quick publication history: Serialisation began in Shuukan Shounen Sunday‘s first issue of 2008 (released in December 2007). The first tankoubon – which includes chapters 1-5 – hit store shelves on 18 April 2008.
Okay, now that we’ve got the facts down, let’s put the first chapter of Saijou no Meii on the dissection table and scrutinise it part by part.
First, the artwork. Sharp, clean, and – within the boundaries of this long chapter – remarkably consistent. Fans of Hashiguchi’s earlier works will feel right at home here; just trade in the hospital for a bakery and it’s Yakitate!! Japan all over again, stylistically speaking. Hashiguchi’s eye for detail translates into fine illustrations that, while not quite approaching the richness and delicacy of Obata Takeshi‘s art, nonetheless feature some of the best renderings of objects and backgrounds I’ve seen in a while.
Next, the character design. Very nicely done, although there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking here – just more of the usual slick, somewhat angular style that one sees a lot in manga of this type. Again, highly reminiscent of the other Hashiguchi series which I shall not bother to name.
So far, so good: Saijou no Meii scores points on the technical side of things. The story, on the other hand, doesn’t fare as well as either the artwork or the character design. It’s entertaining enough, but there are times when the art is more excited (deliberate use of “-ed” in place of “-ing” there) than the event it’s meant to portray. Even the main character’s first “challenge” is a bit of a yawn-fest, in spite of the author’s efforts to create a sense of drama with the “I’m the only one who can do this!” theme and Dr. Shindou’s lacklustre – perhaps even sappy – “revelation”.
I wouldn’t call it bad, though. I’d say mediocre at worst. And keep in mind that this is just the first chapter; it’s only fair to withhold judgement until we’ve seen the rest of the first volume at least.
Now to another matter. Fans of Yakitate!! Japan will remember Hashiguchi’s extensive use of puns. Given that Saijou no Meii was described as being “just a tiny bit more serious” than its predecessor (with the official website explicitly referring to it as a “medical drama“), it’s no surprise that puns are less in evidence here. But Hashiguchi doesn’t leave out the humour entirely, and there are enough comedic vignettes with flashes of Azuma-like innocence (as in that gem of a scene below) to add a bit of bounce to the story.
Plus, there’s a pun built into the title itself.
In summary: fine artwork, great character design, shaky storytelling. Not exactly the best of beginnings, but it’s enough to keep me committed for a few more chapters.