‘Sugar Sugar Rune,’ Volumes 4-8

Sugar Sugar Rune, volumes 4-8. Story and art by Moyoco Anno. Translated by Kaya Laterman. Del Rey Manga (New York), 2007. Rated Y (Ages 10+).

I previously reviewed the first three volumes of this series. Because this was adapted and translated by Del Rey, I speculated that a re-release might come from Kodansha Comics, since Kodansha more-or-less replaced Del Rey Manga. I learned subsequently that the rights now actually belong to Udon Entertainment, which planned to begin releasing the series sometime in late 2016.

That didn’t happen, so the fate of the English translation of Sugar Sugar Rune is currently up in the air. Since the series has been released in Japanese as a colorized web comic, I’m hoping for a colorized English version, but that may be asking too much. Also still in need of a release in North America is the anime, the English version of which, as I understand it, only aired in the Philippines.

More than once, I have seen Sugar Sugar Rune touted as one of the greatest of the “cute witch” magical girl stories—a reputation it probably deserves. But, perhaps because the series was largely ignored during its original North American release, I think it’s also fair to say that some of its fans have over-sold it. Is it good? Yes, but it’s not that good. Is it “the greatest fantasy comic of the last five years,” as Anime News Network claimed? Well, I’d have to survey most of the fantasy comics from the five-year block before its publication to form an opinion on that, but I doubt it. Yes, it’s a fine little manga, but calm down.

To reiterate the premise of this series for those who weren’t with us last time, there exists a magical world parallel to our own world. Inhabiting the magical world are toothy witches who dress in goth outfits and gorge on enough sugary desserts to give readers a vicarious case of diabetes. The only way they can maintain their magic is to travel to the human world and steal “hearts”—crystalized human emotions—which they can transform into “ecuré,” a substance that is both the basis of their magic and their form of currency. Whenever it is time to select a new queen, the most promising young girls are sent to the human world to collect as many hearts as they can, specifically by making boys fall in love with them. The more hearts they steal, the more money they make to buy new magic to steal more hearts. Whoever generates the most cash gets to rule the world.

The yawning jaws of love.

The candidates for queen this time around are Vanilla, the shy and timid daughter of the current Queen Candy, and Chocolat, the hot-headed daughter of the disgraced witch Cinnamon. Chocolat and Vanilla try to be best friends, but circumstances bring them into inevitable conflict, kind of like in soft-serve ice cream.

Chocolat and Vanilla.

Much of the story in the first three volumes focuses on Chocolat and Vanilla’s various machinations to steal boys’ hearts. The more ecuré they make, the more magical items they can purchase. Even if the premise is kind of silly, the series (at least at first) has a clear, easy-to-understand magical system: Chocolat, who has trouble wooing boys, has to husband her cash to purchase items like magical lipstick or perfume to make herself more attractive, while Vanilla, who wins hearts easily, constantly adds new spells to her wand and laces her Valentine’s chocolates with love potions. Although the series over time softens its mercenary approach to romance, it never quite overcomes the impression that these witches are manipulative little creeps.

Even creepier in color.

It’s that impression, coupled with the comic’s distinctive aesthetic, that gives Sugar Sugar Rune its flair. With its frilly goth outfits and fantastical yet brooding environmental designs, coupled with its girlish but somewhat ugly premise, it has a look and feel reminiscent of a Tim Burton movie. Anno-sensei does not shy away from disturbing ideas or artwork: built into the concept is the idea that there’s a global conspiracy of witches out to manipulate people’s emotions: most popular celebrities, such as actors and singers, are really witches who’ve infiltrated our world. At one point, Chocolat even travels to a Walpurgisnacht, where all the witches in the human world gather once a year, and rather than looking like a collection of cute magical girls, the illustrations are reminiscent of a bacchanalia or witches’ Sabbath.

Volume three climaxes with the “spring exam,” a test of Vanilla and Chocolat’s magical skills. Since Chocolat has frittered away her meager funds on novelty items while Vanilla has steadily acquired new powers, Vanilla looks likely to win. Although the spring exam is one of the most clever segments in the story, it unfortunately does not have any definite relationship to the rest of the plot; since the winner of the contest for the queenship is whoever makes the most ecuré, it’s unclear what the exam is meant to accomplish.

You’re making me dizzy.

After volume three, the story pivots to a greater focus on the conflict between the witches and ogres. The ogres are a rival group of magicians who create ecuré from jealousy and hatred rather than the positive emotions that the witches use. Chocolat, in spite of her better judgment, finds herself infatuated with the prince of the ogres, Pierre, who with his conniving ways infects Vanilla with “noir” and turns her into a dark magical girl who sows envy and greed.

She’s evil, I tell you.

Much of the story in these final five volumes centers around Chocolat’s effort to save both Vanilla and Pierre. At the story’s conclusion, the ogres’ ruler breaks free from his icy prison and attempt an all-out assault on the witches’ capital. With its ancient menace getting free for a final battle, the conclusion of Sugar Sugar Rune is similar to the finales of any number of other magical girl stories such as  Princess Tutu, Fairy Musketeers, or even Magical Girls Club.

Anyway, as the story switches gears, it weakens. The magic becomes increasingly vague as the girls use fewer love spells and more attacks—attacks that take the typical form of girls throwing light at each other without explaining to the reader what those lights represent. The creative magic battle between Pierre and Chocolat in volume 2, which I earlier praised, gives way to more conventional magical girl fights that are conventionally hard to interpret.

Also, there are a number of forced plot points. For the most absurd of reasons, Chocolat and Pierre end up trapped together in a cave. Later, Chocolat and Vanilla take a random trip to Hollywood where they just happen to meet a powerful witch who gives them an important MacGuffin. Out of nowhere, Chocolat discovers that she has a previously unknown but extremely convenient magic power. Then the final battle takes place largely because Chocolat does something unnecessary and stupid. And as the story builds to its conclusion, it violates a few of its own established rules—most especially in how witches’ hearts work. The early chapter had taken pains to establish the difference between human and witch hearts, but the last few chapters basically say, “Never mind that.”

And although mileage on this point will vary, I also think the later chapters are weak because they focus heavily on the budding romance between Chocolat and Pierre—and Pierre is simply not a likable character. From the beginning, he’s icy and manipulative, and he never changes much. He’s a good villain, but Anno-sensei fails to sell him as a love interest.

Some of these issues might have been resolved if the story were a little longer. Its feels rushed, as if it might benefit from another volume’s worth of material to give better set-ups and explanations for some of the twists and turns in the plot. As it is, the characters bounce around too much.

As I mentioned before, Sugar Sugar Rune has complicated layouts. Shoujo manga, we might say, is the ballet or opera of  comic books, in that it generally focuses more on emotions than on rigorous storytelling. The complicated, collage-like layouts for which it is known deliver the story as a series of impressions rather than as an easily followed sequential narrative. This two-page spread here will give you an idea of the eye-strain-o-vision in which Sugar Sugar Rune is drawn:

As Sugar Sugar Rune evolves from a shoujo manga about first love into more of a sword-and-sorcery story, it becomes hampered by its presentation, and so by the sixth volume I found myself wishing that Anno had opted for sequential panels instead of the zigzagging jumble she uses.

My understanding is that the anime version makes several changes to the plot and places less emphasis on the witch-ogre conflict. That could conceivably be an improvement, but from what I’ve seen of it, it also looks like the anime fails to capture the distinctive, edgy look that makes this title so notable in the first place. So it goes, I guess.

Whatever else we might say about Sugar Sugar Rune, I think we can say that Anno has created some of the most iconic and appealing cute witches in the genre. With their sharp fangs, bug-like eyes, and floppy hats, Chocolate and Vanilla have exactly the half-cutesy, half-menacing look they should. I do recommend this series—but mostly for its clever premise, its moody environments, and its character designs.