Arm of Kannon is a strange mixture of fascinating elements, tiresome didacticism, compelling layouts, and annoyingly distorted art.
The first volume, which only hints at what’s likely to be a much more in-depth and complex story, arrays a school-age brother and sister, mystical warriors, secret government agencies, and hideous monsters in a struggle between light and dark over a the occult Arm of Senju Kannon, a seemingly human arm possessed of mystical, and perhaps even viral, powers.
And the layouts are interesting, some of the ideas packed with potential, the gore extreme. But despite all this, nothing about the initial book really compels me to seek out Vol. 2.
Mao and Mayo Mikami were abandoned by their archeologist father three years earlier without any warning. They’ve never heard from him again and don’t know if he’s alive or dead. Into their lives comes a strange man who appoints himself their bodyguard ? and just in time, as they are soon menaced by men in black suits who have the occasional habit of transforming into monsters.
Soon enough, their father ? emaciated and aged far beyond the three years he’s been gone ? returns with the story of the Arm of Kannon. Mao, thrilled that his father is home, tries to connect with him, but gets far more than he bargained for ? his father transforms into a monster himself and then rapes his son, infecting him with some sort of evil or power yet to be explained.
The government agents then kidnap Mao and Mayo and attack their self-appointed bodyguard.
As Mao’s infection grows, he begins to become monstrous as well.
The thing that stands out most about Arm of Kannon is its use of sex and sexuality as a story element. The story kicks off with Mao awakening from a wet dream in which the voluptuous naked woman of his dream tears apart from a vaginal opening in her chest. It continues with constant upskirt shots of Mayo, Mao’s rape, the naked breasts of dead women, and a government agent repeatedly masturbating Mao while he is unconscious to test his semen.
In short: sexuality is central to the story, but dealt with more strangely than in many other works. It’s hard to understand the goal of this focus on sex in the story given only this single volume ? is it prurient and exploitative or is there a larger point being made by the story?
The possibility of their being a larger point to the use of sex in this way is raised by the story’s focus on evolution and DNA. The government agents that turn into monsters are the result of genetic engineering by the agency they work for. The government agents prattle on endlessly about DNA and genetic engineering. So perhaps this interest in the biological, in evolution, and thus in sex, is all thematically related.
The problem with the sections of the story about DNA, evolution, etc. is that they’re treated in a didactic, breathless way. Each of these sections reads like a science lesson, not characters speaking to each other and it takes the reader right out of the story.
Another jarring aspect of Arm of Kannon is the art. Though the layouts are inventive and visually exciting (the foreshadowing technique of bringing panels from later in the story back to earlier points promises to be fulfilling as the series goes on), the art is a bit dodgy.
As with much of the manga that TokyoPop, CPM, and other publishers are bringing out recently, the artists seem to have almost no grasp of anatomy. Though there is, of course, some room for stylized figures, the characters drawn by these artists look like mutants, not caricatures. The way that Mao and Mayo’s bodyguard is drawn is perhaps the best example of this: in some scenes his legs are literally twice as long as his torso, in others his neck is longer than his forearm, the sword he wields is taller than he is.
These proportions are so out of whack as to be absurd. And in a story where the monsters should be the most distorted and strange-looking creatures, such ill-shaped humans undercut the impact of the monsters.
Arm of Kannon is a mixed bag of confusing, compelling, and off-putting elements. No doubt there’s more development coming in later volumes that would help explain, contextualize, and improve the first volume, but the mixture of elements in the first volume is so negating that it’s hard to feel compelled to rush out to buy Volume 2.