Dragon. Zombie. Vampire. Ninja. Lizard men. Robot wolf. A lot of mythical creatures wreaking havoc in urban fantasy environment. A big ensemble cast, at least a third of them is probably unnecessary. Psychopath made to look endearing. Yep, this is a Ryohgo Narita joint, alright.
A short-lived serial in weekly Shounen Jump and published in three tankoubon volumes, I got the first two volumes of this through a local reviewing contest. Otherwise, there’s a good chance I may not notice the title or skip it altogether, considering I’m pretty unenthusiastic on the anime adaptation of Narita’s Baccano (my very first post here!). Based on my experience with the Baccano! and how it sharply contrasts with the reaction of many people out there, I assume that perhaps Narita’s writing style and characterization are just not my cup. Well, I’m glad I got to read Stealth Symphony, because I end up liking this one.
That’s not to say that SS is great, or even anything near the ideal representation of its sub-genre. The main thing going for it, however, is how it utilizes its central thematic gimmick splendidly. You know, the kind of gimmick that exist in similar works, like the deadpanning at crazy things in Blood Blockade Battlefront, the jumbled timeline of Baccano!, or the real life author representation in Bungou Stray Dogs? Most of the time, these gimmicks are there for no good reason other than novelty value, but I find Stealth Symphony’s to be the rare one that works.
Here’s the gist: everyone is not who you think they are. Or, put in other words, your first impression of a given character will likely be at odds with their actual self and what they eventually do. This happens a lot of times throughout, and it somehow never really gets old. It helps that it’s a bit more varied and nuanced than just ‘this person is actually good/evil!’, with the final twist in particular completely catching me by surprise.
Nevertheless, the early goings in Stealth Symphony didn’t impress me much. The setting feels like a poor man’ version of Hellsalem Lot in Yasuhiro Nightow’s Blood Blockade Battlefront, and this impression isn’t helped by the eventual appearance of designated main character Jig, a (initially) milquetoast-looking boy who seems like a carbon copy of BBB’s Leonardo. Being primarily a novelist and working with Yoichi Amano for the art, there are evidently some transitional pains as Narita isn’t well-versed in manga story-telling. It just doesn’t have a good flow, with too many characters introduced and events told at an awkward pace. The humor falls flat for me most of the times, and action/scenes are also bogged down by inefficient paneling and the sheer number of characters involved.
Er, I probably just made the comic sounds horrible. Thing is, the characters eventually grow on me, particularly Jig, the fascinating and endearingly polite invisible being Toroma (*that grinning green mask in the above ‘caps), the buoyant blind girl with proxy eyeballs Laika, and the stoic wolf borg commander Colt. I also end up loving the general visual design by Amano. Finally, the climax makes up for a lot of the issues, and yes, it is that good. Even as the pacing and execution issue is still there in the final volume, everything just sort of click together for me by the end, and I begin to appreciate the amount of work Narita put in planting hints, information, and foreshadowing since the beginning of the story.
The tankoubon volumes come with Narita’s notes at the end of each chapter, which I find very interesting. He speaks openly about the difficulties and challenges he faced in conceptualizing a manga storyline from short story form, the numerous adjustments he had to make due to Jump’s editorial mandates, and his dynamics with Amano. He also expresses humility by admitting that he started with a wrong approach and failed to make the story more immediately engaging. A lot of insightful stuff, and these legitimately enhance my experience while reading the manga (in general, gaining insight on a creator’s thought process tends to lead into my increased appreciation and understanding of the work, and it helps that Narita converses in fun and open manner).
With a better composition and storyboarding, Stealth Symphony could’ve really been a great series. Being in a less restrictive environment could probably help as well, as I think Narita’s vision of the series simply isn’t a good fit with weekly Jump and its target audience. While I don’t think a significantly longer SS would be necessarily better, hypothetically speaking I’d personally love at least an extra volume between V2 and V3, preferably with an arc involving all of Toroma, Jig, Colt, and Laika. As it is, my overall impression is still positive though, and I hope Narita would someday try his hands again on manga writing.
Again, whether by necessity or design, that’s a damn good way to end a series.