Fifteen years ago, a child was born at the cost of his mother’s life, and through that child, a dragon appeared. This dragon obliterated the landscape and was followed shortly by a horde of Shadows–dark beasts that enter and possess bodies via those bodies’ shadows. The only way to contain a Shadow is to keep it out of the light, and so, to protect the land, the child and his dragon were sealed away into darkness. But in these fifteen years, the Shadows have grown ever more destructive, so much so that the only defense against these Shadows might be the dragon that heralded them in the first place. And so, the boy Ral, and his dragon Grad, are released from their prison and begin a quest to defeat the Shadows.
The description on the back of the book makes this Ral & Grad Volume 1 sound like a heroic fantasy adventure, but here’s how everything really goes down:
Ral is released. He promptly kills his father because OMG what kind of parent would imprison his son for fifteen years (never mind his apocalyptic tendencies), and upon seeing his kind lady tutor for the first time, realizes that women’s bodies are fascinatingly different from men’s. At which point he rips open her dress, feels up her boobs, likes them, and decides that he will help fight the shadows–to protect women. Specifically, to protect their boobies.
This is the motivation for the entire volume.
Think this is exaggeration? This is an actual exchange that occurs in the comic:
It’s safe to say that this book is aimed at pubescent boys who have just had the same realization as its main character, realized (hopefully) that it’s not proper to go around grabbing every boob that they see, and are looking for some sort of fantastic way to satisfy that sexual frustration. Here, this book satisfies. Ral gets away with all his boob-grabbing because his intentions, his tutor insists, are basically innocent (She never taught him about women, so he’s naturally curious!), and all the girls he meets are intrigued by this and, at least in one case, flock to get naked and take baths with him.
The obvious thematic problem in this manga is that all female characters are reduced to nothing more than their exciting girly bits. None of them have any characteristics beyond “cute/sexy” or “sympathetic” (i.e. “totally understanding that Ral just wants to grab their boobs”), and at no point does the comic make a serious suggestion that girls might not like to be groped by random strangers. In fact, it does quite the opposite in suggesting that groping leads to naked lady baths. Refreshingly, there is one valiant male character who calls Ral an outright pervert, but Ral’s response is that, for said character’s nobility, he’s only protecting his princess of choice because he wants to get at her boobs, too, and there ends up being truth to that. (Really, though, I suppose this can be said of any man who willingly enters a relationship with a female, regardless of his level of valiantness). Anyway, hardcore feminists are going to hate this book. (Not that it’s actually aimed at girls, but whatever.)
This is especially true of hardcore feminists who are hoping for a plot. The story in Ral & Grad is a flimsy one. Granted, story isn’t the point of this comic, but bear with me. The very catalyst of the story doesn’t make any sense because, after Ral and Grad’s initial imprisonment in the prologue, there’s nothing to suggest that their evil (or at least destructive) alignment has changed (except maybe under the guidance of Ral’s tutor, but Ral himself doesn’t seem incredibly intelligent or socially adept, so one has to wonder what exactly she was teaching him in the first place). After that the story slopes into a gather-a-party-and-go-on-a-journey style story that is mostly pictures of hot ladies punctuated by cool Shadow battles, which is really all this comic aims to be.
It’s the art that makes it readable for people who aren’t hormonal teenage males. The comic is illustrated by Takeshi Obata of Death Note and Hikaru no Go fame, and said illustrations are stellar. His Shadow designs are reminiscent of Tite Kubo’s distinct Hollow designs from Bleach, with a bit of creepy Death Note Shinigami thrown in. Panel arrangements are dynamic, and battles are a whirling blast to look at, and the detail of the character designs themselves compensates somewhat for the utter lack of depth elsewhere. Commendably, he also renders most of the female characters sexy without making them look like strippers, with the exception of the antagonist, whose sensuality is so flagrantly over the top that it’s hilarious.
Really, the same can be said of the comic as a whole. I’m the sort of reader who takes minor offense at unnecessarily scant clothing on female comic characters, but oddly, I’d be okay finding this comic under the mattress of my future hypothetical teenage son. There are several reasons for this: First, for all his interest in boobs, Ral doesn’t seem to have much interest in actual sex. That said, this book is far from being porn or a rape fantasy. Second, the tone of Obata’s art is very tongue-in-cheek. While the story itself does not seem self-aware of how ridiculous it is, the art definitely does, which is why characters’ expressions are goofily exaggerated at several strategic moments. It’s as if the very art is saying, “Hey, reader, don’t take this too seriously.”
It’s worth mentioning, though, that said future hypothetical Holoboy reader would be well-schooled in treating girls respectfully, and Ral & Grad would be understood as a piece of ridiculous escapism. A reader who has no prior inclination to see girls as anything more than boobs, meanwhile, is going to find no encouragement to do otherwise in Ral & Grad, which is one of the book’s most uncomfortable implications.
Gender issues aside, I found Ral & Grad a hilarious read. It’s not a manga that I’d actually spend money on, nor is it one that I’d actively recommend, but it’s definitely one that I’ll check out from the library just to show its absolute absurdity to my manga-reading friends. (My friends who don’t read manga would probably just find it weird and never invite me to their house again.)