‘Sugar Sugar Rune,’ Volumes 1-3

The greatest fantasy comic of the last 5 years has just ended its publication run in America and nobody cares. Oh well, I’ll just give it an A- and cry sad tears over why there aren’t more fans of Sugar Sugar Rune. —Carlos Santos, Anime News Network

Sugar Sugar Rune, volumes 1-3. Story and art by Moyoco Anno. Translated by Yayoi Ihne. Del Rey Manga (New York), 2006. Rated Y (Ages 10+).

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Sugar Sugar Rune may be one of the magical girl genre’s best-kept secrets. From time to time, I see this title named as the best of the so-called “cute witch” magical girl stories. Anime News Network, as quoted above, in 2008 even went so far as to call it the best fantasy comic of the last five years, and also said it has “one of the most satisfying, most creative, most epic endings to a fantasy series ever.” There is evidence for this in how the series gets sold: take a look on Amazon, and you will see that the aftermarket prices are reasonable for the first seven volumes, but then shoot up to ridiculous numbers for the final volume, apparently because people are actually willing to pay upwards of forty-five dollars for Sugar Sugar Rune‘s allegedly mind-blowing finale.

Seriously, dude, if this doesn't say "mind-blowing fantasy epic," I don't know what does.
Dude, if this doesn’t say “mind-blowing fantasy epic,” I don’t know what does.

Yet, as Anime News Network says, it remains a relatively obscure title. Its fans are hardcore, but few in number. The manga is out of print now, and the anime adaptation, which changes a lot of the story’s details, is unavailable on DVD this side of the Pacific (and contrary to what I mistakenly wrote in an earlier post, it was never broadcast in the U.S., though there is an English dub that showed in the Philippines).

I have at present only tracked down the first three volumes of Sugar Sugar Rune, and because of the way I went about it, read them out of order—much to my annoyance. That’s all I’ll discuss for now. No spoilers, please, or I’ll send Chocolat the witch to whoop your butt.

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While Vanilla sleeps, Chocolat contemplates your butt-whooping.

Because the manga is difficult to acquire and the anime can’t be acquired at all, it may seem pointless to write a review, but I don’t think so. For one thing, I too would like more people to be aware of this series. And for another thing, now would be a great time for a reprint: since Kodansha Comics (imprint of Kodansha USA Publishing) replaced Del Rey Manga (imprint of Random House) in 2010, it has reissued a number of series that were originally published by Del Rey in the U.S. Stacked next to my desk, for example, is the 2013 edition of Shugo Chara!, another magical girl title, which Del Rey originally published in 2007. A new release of Sugar Sugar Rune under the Kodansha Comics brand would seem to be similarly worthwhile if there’s sufficient reader interest.

Also, Sugar Sugar Rune is now partially available online in full color, but only in Japanese (and that’s where I got many of the screencaps for this post). If Kodansha Comics were to release a full-color edition in English, that would be suh-weet. If they did that, you could probably own a full-color set of all eight volumes for about the same as what the eighth volume of the black-and-white version would cost you right now.

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Chocolat and Vanilla freak out about the price of their eighth volume.

As we move into the subject of what exactly Sugar Sugar Rune is, we may speculate as to why it lacks the popularity it deserves. First, it is unquestionably a series for children, which might be off-putting to some adult readers; the publisher rates it for ages ten and up, and it includes little extras between the chapters that have a very childish tone. Second, the premise sounds extremely silly and girly at first blush, though in fact Moyoco Anno gives her tale some unexpected bite and deftly avoids the cloying character that afflicts much of the genre.

Third, the cover art kind of sucks. I don’t know why this is, because the interior art is great. But the covers … yeah, they suck. I mean, just look at the cover of volume 1 up at the top there: there’s a cute witch, and she’s got a broom and the classic Wizard of Oz-inspired striped thigh-highs, and there’s maybe something interesting going on in the background with the building standing on an impossible cliff … but the witch is stiff-looking, she doesn’t appear to have a neck, her left arm is missing, and the cover simply tells you nothing about the story except that there’s a witch in it.

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Why isn’t this on the cover instead?

Anyway, to make clear what Anno-sensei has accomplished in this series, allow me to lay out the typical premise of a cute witch story: a manga or anime of the cute witch variety usually involves a young girl with magical powers who comes to Earth from another world. She comes to use her magic to help people with their problems, perhaps because she’s a princess in training to be the next queen and being nice to people scores her points or something.

Sugar Sugar Rune gives this premise an intriguing twist. There are two young witches, Chocolat and Vanilla, who have arrived on Earth, and they are not merely in training to be queen, but in a cutthroat competition. The witch who wins the queenship will be the one who can make the largest number of boys fall in love with her—because when the boys fall in love, she can literally steal their hearts and exchange them for hard, cold cash. She who makes the most moola gets the throne.

Magical girl stories tend to wax maudlin about love and friendship, so I find Chocolat and Vanilla’s decidedly mercenary approach to romance to be both refreshing and endlessly funny. They are wholehearted about using boys as their cash cows, and as they make money from stealing hearts, they use it to purchase magical items or wand upgrades to enhance their powers and make the boys go even crazier: they buy magic perfumes or magic makeup, and they spike their Valentine’s chocolate with love potions. It’s hilarious. The male cast is made up primarily of likeable but naïve schmucks who have no idea what’s hit them.

Menacing though these witchy activities sound, having one’s heart stolen is apparently harmless to humans. It means losing one’s feelings of attraction and some associated memories, but apparently has no other ill effects. It’s even possible to steal a heart repeatedly from the same boy.

The hearts are color-coded for your convenience; different colors represent different levels of affection, and the more intense the emotion, the more the heart is worth. In the Magical World, the stolen hearts are used to produce something called “ecuré,” which serves as both a form of currency and the source of the witches’ magic. Because of the importance of ecuré, there are witches and wizards who live permanently in the human world and steal hearts for a living; one such wizard is the girls’ mentor, Rockin’ Robin, who steals the ladies’ hearts by working as (what else?) a pop idol.

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Incidentally, these two witches and most of the boys they’re macking on are supposed to be all of ten years old. No, really. I vaguely remember being ten, and I’m pretty sure at that age my friends and I were a lot more interested in baseball and Transformers than in girls, but hey, whatever. Perhaps things have changed since then. I’m pretty sure there weren’t any coquettish, gold-digging witches at my grade school, so maybe that’s the difference.

Anyway, all of this would be enough to make for an amusing gag series, but Anno-sensei takes it further. Complicating matters, Chocolat and Vanilla are best friends who have vowed not to allow the competition to damage their friendship—though that promise will, of course, swiftly be put to the test. Vanilla is a meek, shy girl who cries easily; this made her an object of abuse in the Magical World, but on Earth, she unexpectedly finds herself grabbing hearts at a record pace because she makes the boys go all moe. Chocolat, on the other hand, soon discovers that glowering at the boys and threatening to beat them up, though it had made her the most popular girl in the Magical World, suddenly isn’t winning friends or influencing people.

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Chocolat runs into additional trouble when she meets Pierre, a dangerous older man (he’s fourteen) on whom she soon develops a crush. This puts her in mortal danger: though humans swiftly generate new hearts whenever theirs are stolen, a witch has only one heart, and if she ever develops full-blown “passionate love,” represented by a bright red heart, she is forced to give her heart away—which means her death. What’s worse, Pierre is not a human, but an ogre, which means he’s an enemy of the witches. Like the witches, the ogres are out to gather hearts, but instead of hearts of love, they prefer to seize “noir” hearts, which contain feelings of hate and envy.

Pierre is on a mission to make Chocolat fall in love with him so he can kill her. Aware of what he’s up to but infatuated with him anyway, Chocolat tries to win Pierre’s heart in order to kill him first. Unfortunately for her, Pierre is a cool customer, both literally and metaphorically speaking, so Chocolat is gravely outmatched in this deadly game of manipulative love.

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Meanwhile, although Vanilla swiftly gets ahead in the contest and is even near to achieving an all-time record, her past unpopularity has left her emotionally fragile, so she becomes increasingly convinced that others are conspiring against her, including her own mother, the current queen. Such insecurities open her to Pierre’s machinations, so she begins sliding toward the dark side.

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The story moves swiftly. Already by the second volume, Chocolat and Pierre are having a death battle, and since he has more experience, more magical power, and more ability to make people go all heart-throbby, he pretty much makes her his witch.

 

The battle is more-or-less a standard magical girl fight in which characters stand opposite each other and shout spells in foreign languages (in this case, a mixture of English and French). Chocolat and Pierre are apparently really out to kill each other, though there is a certain amount of humor in the proceedings, since their means of killing each other involves casting spells meant to give the other an infatuation.

The second volume also gives us our first extended look at the Magical World. It is much as you might expect, a sort of Edwardian-inspired, Halloween-themed place with lots of dresses and waistcoats and crazy hairdos, probably partly influenced by Harry Potter, which was ongoing at the time Sugar Sugar Rune appeared. Certainly, like the witches and wizards of Harry Potter, the witches and wizards of Sugar Sugar Rune seem to live almost entirely off sugary junk food, which makes you wonder why they need those prominent fangs they’re sporting.

We also meet Queen Candy, Vanilla’s mother, who explains to Chocolat the history of the rivalry between the witches and ogres. Candy portrays the ogres as having been wronged, which makes me want to slap her like a witch, since she ought to be working on protecting her own people instead of sympathizing with the enemy. But whatever.

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The third volume finds Pierre drawing closer to Vanilla and revealing dark secrets about her past. That volume climaxes with the spring exam, in which Vanilla and Chocolat must return temporarily to the Magical World to fight in yet another contest, one Vanilla appears likely to win, as she’s been seizing hearts like gangbusters and pimping out her magic wand like a boss.

Shoujo manga is known for complex page layouts and confusing, stream-of-consciousness storytelling, but the pages in Sugar Sugar Rune appear to me to be especially complex with tons of detail packed in. Sometimes, the talking balloons move in a zigzag, so you follow the story by running your eye back and forth down the page. It’s never unattractive, but it takes some getting used to. The artwork is generally good, with a lot of attention to detail in the costumes and scenery. The witches are expressive with their huge eyes and sharp teeth, though they sometimes have that awkward, stiff appearance I pointed out on the cover.

This is really an enjoyable series. It’s clever and has a lot of likeable characters. After three volumes, I’m certainly not prepared to call it the greatest thing ever as some of its fans do, but I definitely want to get my hands on more of it.

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