Friday, May 9, 2014

Time of the Lab Mice, vol. 1

A little background. Some months ago, I found a used copy of the White  Comic video game, which had been developed as part of the 50th anniversary activities for both Shonen Sunday and Shonen Magajin magazines. The game is essentially made up of cameos by a number of characters from Sunday and Magajin from different eras. The designs for some of the Magajin characters were rather intriguing, and after finishing the game I actually saw those titles in the Book Off used bookstore. When I finished writing up the Q.E.D. and C.M.B. books a couple months ago, I began thinking about visiting Book Off to see what I could buy, but when I finally did go, they were having another 20% off sale on their 105 yen manga. At the current exchange rate, I'd be buying used manga at about 80 cents USD, and that was a little too good of an opportunity to pass up. Unfortunately, I didn't see any of the titles from the White Comic game in the 105 yen section, but I still walked out of the store with about 10 books. I'm pacing myself, and may be reading them at about one a week.

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

The first book up is Hatsuka Nezumi no Jikan, vol. 1, by Kei Toume (2005, Monthly Afternoon). Funny enough, while the literal translation for "Hatsuka Nezumi" is "20th Day of the month Mouse", it's really the Japanese word for "white mouse", specifically the white mice kept as pets, or used in hospitals for lab testing. The wiki entry for Kei Toume lists this title as "Hour of the Mice," although I think a more appropriate English title would be "Time of the Lab Mice". Kei Toume also created Acony, Kurogane and Lament of the Lamb (the last two titles came out in the U.S. from Del Rey and Tokyopop.) Kei's character designs are instantly recognizable, and her artwork is pretty consistent from one title to the next. So, if you like any one of her stories, you'll probably like Lab Mice, too.

Maki, Natsume, Mei and Ryou are all students at Souryou High School. They've been raised by the school and told that they're there because they're special and hand-picked. But, there are signs that there's something fishy with the place. Natsume was caught going outside and is punished as a result by being placed in a form of detention resembling a prison cell. When he is given a talking-to in the principal's office, the only other thing in the office is a video camera set on the desk. One day, Maki's class gets a transfer student, Kiriko. The new girl seems to know Maki, but he all he can remember of her is her face. This bugs Maki a lot and he confronts Kiriko in the library. She leads him to a section of the room out of sight of the security cameras and tells him that she'd been in the school before, and had escaped years ago. She even tried to bring Maki with her but he'd chickened out. She'd been living outside for the last several years until getting caught and brought back again. Now, she's planning on another breakout and she needs his help. Maki's getting a headache thinking about all this, and Kiriko tells him that it's caused by the "medicines" that everyone is required to take during meals. The "school" is actually a test laboratory run by a private pharmaceuticals manufacturer. One of the pills they're given is designed to erase memories.

(Kiriko talks about the "school" as a meds testing lab.)

A few nights later, Kiriko has scouted the building out and identified blind spots in the security system. She prepares a couple bombs (soda bottles taped up and filled with vinegar and baking soda) and tells Maki to plant one in a hallway, while she puts the other one on a different floor. The bottles explode loudly enough to create a distraction, letting her escape into the surrounding woods. Again, she asks Maki to join her, and again he chickens out. Afterward, Natsume, Mei, Ryou and Maki compare notes and stories, and they're realizing that there are huge holes in their memories. Further, Mei is chronically ill, and they're thinking that Kiriko may not have been lying, that maybe the "medicines" they're taking are at the root of all their problems. At about this point, the story shifts to a group of people living in the outside world, and it seems that at least one of them may have been the guy that had helped raise Kiriko after she first escaped the school. When she disappears, some of the group trying tracking her down, unsuccessfully.

(Unnamed guy that helped raise Kiriko when she escaped the first time.)

The volume wraps up with Natsume showing the others a forgotten tunnel running under the school to a remote building in the woods, possibly left over from the American occupation following WW II. And one of the guys from the outside world realizes that there may be a lead he'd overlooked in his search for Kiriko. Finally, Kiriko herself reappears in the school without any explanation from the teachers or administration, with absolutely no recollection of Maki or the other three. In fact, she was captured before escaping the school grounds, and brainwashed by one of the doctors into believing that her years on the run were actually one long, bad dream; but she's back in the school and everything will be better now.

(When Kiriko gets caught trying to escape. These aren't your father's school guards.)

Comments: This is a rather dark story, and not all that farfetched. The artwork is good, the character designs are typical Toume, and the story moves along slowly but surely. Highly recommended if you like intrigue and suspense.

(One of the school doctors brainwashing Kiriko into believing that her time on the run outside the school was just one long bad dream.)

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