Plot-wise, Animal Land bears an uncanny resemblance to the Book of Exodus: a young girl finds a baby floating on a river, rescues him, and raises him as her son. The twist is that Monoko isn’t human; she’s a tanuki, or Japanese raccoon dog, and must learn how to care for a creature that’s much more delicate than she is. She faces a number of obstacles, not the least of which is her fellow tanukis’ reluctance to adopt a human into their community. Monoko gradually convinces her village to help her save the foundling, leading to an amazing discovery: little Taroza can talk to the animals!
Animal Land, Vol. 1
By Makoto Raiku
Rating: Teen (13+)
2011, Kodansha Comics, ISBN: 978-1935429135
200 pp., $10.99
It’s a pity that the bathroom jokes — and yes, there are a fair number of them — earned Animal Land a 13+ rating, as the slapstick humor and exaggerated storytelling seem better suited to fifth, sixth, and seventh graders than high school students. Monoko, in particular, feels a little too young to be the heroine of a story for teens; her flat-chested appearance, frequent recourse to tears, and puppy-dog crush on a friend peg her as a pre-teen, occupying an awkward place between childhood and adolescence. (The fact that she refers to her late parents as “Mommy” and “Daddy” further cements her youthful impression.)
The artwork, too, skews young. The tanukis have doll-like faces and enormous ears, while Taroza looks like a character out of a Disney movie with his dewy eyes and plump cheeks. Though most of the animals are drawn in a naturalistic fashion, Makoto Raiku adds some anthropomorphic touches: the animals talk and make faces, and a few wear clothing for reasons never fully explained. (Kurokagi, a cat demon, favors patterned pants.)
As jovial as the prevailing tone may be, Raiku doesn’t shy away from darker material. Early in the story, for example, he shows us how Monoko’s parents died, handling their death in the same brief, matter-of-fact way that Jean de Brunhoff presented the death of Babar’s mother. The flashback helps establish Monoko’s motive for saving Taroza without belaboring the parallels between their situations. The flashback serves another important purpose as well, foreshadowing a plotline involving the tanukis’ ongoing conflict with a band of hungry wildcats.
My suggestion is to ignore the rating and let younger readers have access to Animal Land. Tweens will enjoy the broad humor and fast-paced action sequences as well as the heartwarming relationship between Monoko and Taroza; older readers, however, may find Animal Land too obvious to hold their attention.