In the 18th century, seeking "freedom and equality," the event that became the starting point of modern French society, the French Revolution, began. There was one more protagonist that lived within the darkness, Charles-Henri Sanson. He was the fourth generation family head of the Sanson Family, and executioner of Paris.
This is the story of him nobly facing his harsh fate...
"Grandiose et romanesque, ampoulée et pittoresque"
Shinichi Sakamoto is one author of a kind . Pretty discreet, he have been "revealed" with his previous manga "Kokou no hito", that made a lot of fans.
Me too, when I heard about his new project, "Innocent", I was very exited and eager to read it, and that is because Shinichi Sakamoto have a style and way of doing things of his own.
I entered this manga expecting impressive art, lyrism and some exuberant metaphorical and symbolistic drawings along with a story shouldered by a lot of studies from the author for the domain and historical period he was immersing
The result ? I got exactly what I expected.
Maybe not exactly thought, since unlike the synopsis might make it seems, the present manga doesn't cover the event of the french revolution but "before" it happen. For that, we will surely have to wait for the sequel ("Innocent Rouge"), that, as I am writing this, is still publishing.
One other related point: the manga as it is now doesn't offer any satisfying ending on it's own, and that is because it appear clear that the sequel I talked about (and haven't started reading yet) is connected to it directly and will take its follow were this manga ended. So if you enter reading "Innocent" now, you might as well consider that it is still "ongoing" or is just the first part of the "Innocent saga", to not have a bitter taste at the end of volume 9.
Those important things cast aside, now is time to look into the various aspect of this manga for themselves.
The manga being quite interesting and peculiar, there would be a LOT to say, so I hope you won't mind that I will have my own approach to it and won't talk about everything I could have.
The story of Innocent is set in France, before the turning point that will be the French Revolution.
To take a look at this event that is as passionating as it is difficult to handle, our author have chose to show us a very special family, the Sanson family, cursed generation after generation by the title of royal executioners. Which is to say, the duty of ending the lives of criminals in the front of a crowd avid of blood and gruesome "spectacle", in the name of justice.
Inside this lovely family, our "main" protagonist : Charles-Henri Sanson, and taking more importance late, Marie-Joseph Sanson.
It is important to note that all important characters of this manga have really existed, and will be provided a little notice when they first appeart, showing their names, function and destiny.
Which get me to the personal "theory" that I will use to talk and construct my view of the manga for this review : Innocent follow the structure of a theater piece and can be view as one. Innocent is an "opera manga", a theater piece in a manga dress.
Let's take a look at two exemples:
- Charles-Henri is alone in the landscape. Out of nowhere, a beautiful young man he never knew before apear by his side and it's love at first sight. *Poof*, just like that.
- Charles-Henri is alone in his house, lamenting on his knees, in a secret room. A beautiful lady pop up just in front of him, naked. He think it's a divine apparition, but it's not. Two page later, *Poof*, they have sex.
You think it's ridiculous and pretty absurd ? It is.
But Shinichi Sakamoto don't care about that, and it make sense in it's own way: all the characters in this manga are comedian entering the scene when they are sumoned by the author. Each chapters are acts and scenes with specific characters comming from the backstage to recite their line.
At some peculiar points in this manga, Charles-Henri will even, in the middle of a talk, start to... sing.
That's right, out of all realism, this manga can turn into a musical.
It's strange, and you'll be quite surprise and might chuckle, but again: it's an opera you are reading.
As a theater piece, Innocent have a huge list of second characters, all more colorful than the others. This might be one of the point of the manga where I am the most circumspect: some famous characters apearence (like Casanova or Mozart to only name two) seems to have little to no relevence to the plot, and most likely they are just here for the pleasure of the author to draw those mytical human figures. Characters pop up from nowhere and can disapear as fast, but that is because they gravitate around our two executioner Charles-Henri and Marie-Joseph, and also Marie Antoinette, that are like magnets passing through historical events. Attracting and then repulsing second characters in front of the reader's eyes.
I said Marie Antoinette, yes.
She start to take importance in the last half of the manga, and can be view as the third character of the story.
Have you seen "Marie Antoinette", the movie by Sofia Coppola ? If you're like me and you had seen it before reading this manga, you'll find pretty amusing some of the event depicted in later parts of this manga, since it's strictly the same as what you'll see in the movie, but with a completely different mood and view of the characters. If you haven't, I recommend watching it after reading this manga, it should put some other lights on the events and had a very amusing touch to your experience of the two works. Seeing two different artistic view of the same things but with a totaly opposed style is quite an interesting thing.
Now might be the time to talk about the art.
More than anything else in this manga, and most important of all, is the art in this manga. if you had to chose only one aspect about this manga, it would clearly be this.
In one word: Amazing.
Not a single superlative is enought to describe the art that Shinichi Sakamoto is able to pull out of his sleeves.
I didn't said it before, but when it comes to this manga, every quality can be view as downside and every ridiculousness view as genius. Most of the time it's even both.
The biggest point of the author style consist about using very often what I would call graphical metaphore. Explaining it would be difficult for me, but if I had to say something, it is that the author is never afraid of doing too much and being the most lyrical he can.
Over the top, absurd and psychedelic, it's all that.
Other than those absolutely beautiful panels, the drawing of the characters is a feast to the eyes. Curled hairs, piercing eyes, the characters are erected as deity of beauty and refinement.
Marie-Joseph, as a bloody and terrifying beautiful angel of death, is the most impressive of them all.
The author abandon the anatomy of muscular bodies like he drew in "Kokou no Hito" to work this time on the most feminin slenderness he can draw.
By the way, if the idea of two man kissing, two woman kissing ,a man and a young girl in bed, or any depiction of sexual intercourse bother you, you might encounter problems reading this manga.
If you like yuri manga though, it should be all right: just think that the characters are all beautiful girls with long hair. It should be easy.
Also, Marie Antoinette's eyebrows in this manga are out of this world (I should definitly be sorry for those two jokes...)
This is a "libertin" manga.
If Shinichi Sakamoto had been born in France in the past, he would have been a paintor. His skill would have been praised and honored at first.. and then probably cast away because his over the top symbolistic and metaphorical paintings with unbound freedom of visions would have worried the "beaux art" academician and critics.
See the marvelous hommage he do in volume 8 about the wonderful painting of Gustav Klimt named "The Kiss".
The author we have here take his influence and inspirations out of everything and use it to draw is own sensibility and convey what he want to make the reader feel.
Again, one author of a kind.
Let's make a digression to talk about something very significant that surely might stay as completely unnoticed otherwise. Even if you're reading this review after having already read this manga, I'm pretty sure there is a good chance you'll be very surprise by what I'm going to say here:
There is no onomatopoeia in this manga.
That's right. You would have guess that a manga with plenty of sliced neck and choped off heads would have a good amount of *slash* , *splotch* or other things like that. Well, you'll find none.
And there is a good reason to it, it's because Shinichi Sakamoto don't believe in those, he even explained himself about it in a preface of one of his volumes of Kokou no Hito (talking about those introductions, this is another speciality and distinctive aspect of the author. Those little sentence are always strange and filled with his own very serious thoughts and utmost believings. It's something that would be a shame to miss when reading this manga, since it have those too).
His stance might be summed up as this: manga don't need graphical depiction of the sounds, wich at best is only something redundant, and at worst a superfluous element that distract the reader from the narration and what is happening in front of his eyes.
Shinichi Sakamoto believe that if he work hard enought with his drawing, he can reach directly the readers soul and subconscious and make the sound "directly appear in his head", without graphicaly depicting it.
One author of a kind, as I said.
Comming back to the characters. As you may have understanded, the author don't aim to make you feel for them or root for them. Their actions and way of acting are those of a comedian that have a role to fit.
Shinichi Sakamoto is not interested in crafting a continuous story, he willingly make some jump in time of several years, or go back in time to introduce a character the reader had no idea he existed in the life of the protagonist before.
He his interested in the "moments", nothing other than depicting precisely and with the most lyrical and "romanesque" charge what he want to show to the readers eyes.
While reading, you have to accept being throw here and there by the author and just look and read, like an eye looking at events from the side, detached but curious. This is a peculiar way of doing things, and it might have it's problem.
Don't try to hold to much importance in the character evolution and personality of Charle-Henri Sanson for exemple. It's not really what interest the author (or then, his way of doing things is so fragmented that it is difficult to see it that way).
Violence and love, terrors and cries, torture and lust, meanness and vanity, everything is done in an emphatic and exagerated way.
The story of Innocent make some detour, it wander and try to depict the rotten and absurd monarchy France was at the time, and how women were treated as nothing but men's disposable proprieties.
This will lead me to the last point I'd like to talk about in this lenghty review: Marie-Joseph Sanson.
Androgynous, deadly gream reaper and spirit of total freedom, she is the very essence of this fastuous and magnificent opera of a manga.
While all the other characters are handled in the limit of their true existing historical figures, Marie-Joseph Sanson dynamite all likeness and realistic take of the time period to be an utmost modern figure, with no care about gender role or watsohever. It is by her that the author have found the element of trouble to shake all the French society that is show in his story. A rebelious girl, as an avatar of angry uprising that will surely be the embodiment of revolution in the futur, in this theater of mankind that is Innocent. A revolution that will be tainted in rouge.
Think of a moment when you really need to get yourself off, but at the same time just can’t get into it. You feel the need, but your inspiration isn’t there. Then Versailles no Bara comes up in your mind, no matter the reason – and you start to work desperately on what raises those chemicals. Let’s make all the characters into sophisticated smashing androgynes – think you – who want to have sex with each other in weird situations and combinations (and with each other’s families, and in front of one’s family). Then you toss in executions and torture, psychological issues and taboo, exciting
nudity and pretty costumes. You make everything tantalizingly dark, postcard pretty and visually metaphorical (sexually, of course). And somehow you’re also a well-read* intelligent person, interested in the historical period of pre-revolutionary and revolutionary France, so you add spicy facts, like the last days of French monarchy and the executioner dynasty of Sansons, the architecture of Paris and the debauchery of Versailles, Christian values and Christian delusions. You close your eyes tighter – and it all comes together in a feverish self-indulgent lucid dream to shamelessly explore and wallow on your sheets in. That’s basically what Innocent (and then Innocent Rouge**) is, similarly addictive and also an opera at some points (I’ll explain later).
I’ll skip the fluff and go directly to the main question – why isn’t this more popular?
The art is out of this world and fast travelling to another galaxy: It’s. Just. That. Good. The level of detail is tiny lip folds and individual eyelashes. The level of beauty is scary angelic, with people better then either sex suffering in blood and roses, laces and dirt, extensive visual metaphors and meticulously reproduced everyday environments. A hyperrealistic dream with panels ready for expensive printing, Innocent is so worth reading for the art. And if you’re a fan of gothic aesthetics maybe you should drop whatever you’re doing and go read it immediately – so much exquisite pleasure awaits you. There’s no fault in Innocent’s drawings.
So maybe writing? The very fabric of the manga also shows no structural weaknesses. The early chapters are pure awe, sex and tears. By the way this is not torture porn as I had feared – Sansons are public executioners, they don’t extort confessions (they torture at home sometimes), nor is this proper porn – copulations tend to have context and are censored. The eroticism is varied – sometimes cynical and dirty, but more often XVIII century sensitive or romantic: executioners are said to curse by touch, so braver people use our heroes’ bodies as ritualistic objects of severance.
A lot of ambition and earnestness is poured into the story by the author – big people, big history, big ideas come together in the edge and pathos that are, for once, warranted and work. There’re attempts on a serious message: Innocent talks about future, fate and change, about the weight of blood and seeking freedom. Though as far as the plot as the chain of events go it does drag and become sillier later on – with cheap sensationalism and some characters seemingly having no direction, like the secondary protagonist Marie, whose role seems to just be very cool and ignore the established rules of their universe. Still even some of the later chapters produce moments that make your heart sink or flutter.
Maybe the dark topics? Innocent shows very graphic, very barbaric violence. Lives of people are shitty. And while the main characters grows and changes before your eyes and we know his ideals, it’s hard to empathize with him – so alien his occupation and mentality are to us. To read and enjoy this manga you should be onboard with scenes like a lady sending a perfumed handkerchief to a tired executioner to remind him of their night together after which he is invigorated and happy that he can send more people to God. The ideas about women are icky and become progressively more so in the course of the story (believe me it’s a very strong sort of cringe, also I should give a rape warning, including rape of minors).
But being dark and sort of monotonous has not hurt series like, say, Tokyo Ghoul and Berserk. So my best bet is on the complexity of writing. Innocent demands a certain level of cultural knowledge and reading experience. It meshes verbal and non-verbal storytelling, references music, art, books and, especially, Biblical mythos. I got through it without the feeling that it’s rocket science (but then I probably have missed a ton of things), but you definitely should be fast on literary uptake
And then Innocent is very free with its narrative mode. In the postmodern manner it turns scenes in Versailles into a comedic opera or even social media parody, and the closer to the revolution they get, the more the events remind of absurdist theater. To get through this it’s better to understand from the start that Innocent isn’t strictly realistic, while otherwise more or less consistent and historical. Also I must add that music is present along the whole course of this manga and legit works about revolutions tends to be theatrical, so maybe it’s the nature of the event. But no matter the explanation, these interruptions are indeed immersion-breaking and hard to swallow – are these what causes Innocent to elude many dedicated seinen readers? ..I am kidding, of course, you need to get far into the manga first, and they’re not that big of a sin compared to the virtues of this work.
What I am hinting on is – there’s no good reason for the Innocent series not to be on more reading lists and yours in particular too. Everyone who has stomach for its topics should attempt to read it. Innocent is rich, intoxicating, complex and unique. Even if it asks for some effort (mostly the suspension of modesty) – it is all around worth trying for yourself. Just think about the fun – executioner families conversing about hangings during a family dinner or a handsome executioner making love to a lady while ashamedly visualizing dead bodies! Even if not all fetishes click with you, something is bound to reach your soul or other parts. Something is bound to touch you, and here the pile of good things is so big, that more likely than not you’ll get there, if only by friction.
* Sakamoto Shinichi references the books he has used, it’s mainly “Executioner Sanson” by Adachi Masakatsu. But all in all Innocent is not 100% historically accurate, just fyi, you history nerd.
** Innocent Rouge is the direct continuation of Innocent in another magazine.