The Dayan Collection, Vols. 1-4
By Akiko Ikeda
The Dayan Collection, a four-volume series of children’s picture books, fits rather oddly into the Dark Horse catalog. Its principal characters are talking animals, not yakuza thugs or blood-thirsty demons, and the stories shy away from the violent and sexually provocative material found in such Dark Horse mainstays as Akira, Berserk, Lone Wolf and Cub, and Old Boy. Parents familiar with these more adult titles shouldn’t hesitate to buy Dayan for pint-size comics fans, however–Dayan’s Birthday, Thursday Rainy Party, White Eurocka, and Chibikuro Party are strictly G-rated.
The four stories revolve around a sloe-eyed cat with a menagerie of woodland and arctic friends. Like a five or six year old, Dayan’s primary mode is one of insatiable curiosity; his burning need to know how and why provides the narrative framework for all four stories. In Dayan’s Birthday, for example, he consults a trio of witches to learn the date of his actual birthday, while in Chibikuro Party, Dayan trails his shadow into the woods to find out what Chip does after dark.
That said, the books are oddly uneventful. If anything, the storylines seem like a pretext for Akiko Ikeda to draw frolicking animals, as each book ends with a dance or celebration of some kind. Children’s books don’t need to be plot-driven to be entertaining, of course; a book with richly detailed drawings or an imaginative concept may engage a young child’s interest by inviting her to “write” her own story to explain what’s happening on a busy page. Ikeda’s minimalist illustrations, however, don’t lend themselves to this kind of interaction, and would have worked better in service of more traditionally structured stories.
The selling point of The Dayan Collection is Ikeda’s lovely, understated artwork. Throughout the series, she favors a muted palette of earth tones that establish the stories’ woodland setting. Though her characters have undergone a slight anthropomorphizing, she doesn’t labor to make them cute or cartoonish. Her polar bears have claws, her wolves have teeth, her hedgehogs have spines; only their eyes have been exaggerated to give them a more human affect. Her use of pastels is especially effective in suggesting the subtle colors and textures of animal fur, and in capturing natural light: the pale blue of a winter sky, the brilliant cast of a full moon.
Like all Dark Horse titles, The Dayan Collection boasts top-notch production values. The books have a sturdy binding and glossy pages that will withstand grubby fingers, and a smaller trim size that’s just right for little hands. The only disappointment is the stiff, colorless translation. In the manga industry, current practice favors absolute fidelity to the original text over more idiomatic adaptations. That might work for crime thrillers or fantasies in which crack pacing, novel plot twists, spectacular art, or gee-whiz gizmos can dull the impact of clunky dialogue. But that doggedly faithful approach doesn’t work when the text is actually meant to be read out loud, as this passage demonstrates:
Having heard about the animals, the inhabitants of Tachiel started coming to the beach, one by one. Some came with sample dishes of festive foods for Eurocka and some came in hope of becoming acquainted with unfamiliar animals. As they became friendly with each other, some invited the animals to stay overnight in their homes.
Though it may reproduce the literal meaning of the original, the text lacks the wordplay and rhythm of the best kid lit; Dark Horse would have been well advised to take some liberties with the script and make it punchier. My guess is that children may warm to Ikeda’s enchanting illustrations, but won’t clamor for repeated readings–unless they favor the editorial stylings of The Wall Street Journal over Dr. Seuss.