Centaurs GN 1 – Review

There are many ways I considered starting this review, but I think we’ll go with one of the obvious: despite the notorious difficulties of drawing horses, Ryo Sumiyoshi excels. This isn’t surprising when you consider his credentials; before creating Centaurs, Sumiyoshi was a creature designer for the Monster Hunter franchise. But it’s still pivotal to the series, which features several different races of Centaurs, each of which is drawn distinctly and beautifully. The primary protagonist, Matsukaze, is a mountain centaur, which Sumiyoshi describes as being stockier and more heavily muscled, while the secondary protagonist (of this volume), Kohibari, is a plains centaur, who is sleeker and built for running. Not only are the differences between them obvious, but they’re also a joy to look at, and I’m not even a horse person. You get a real sense of muscles moving beneath the skin whenever Matsukaze is on the page, and it enhances the already good story to make this a book where text and image work together.

The story itself, however, is very heavy, which is something to consider going in. Sumiyoshi creates a Japan that appears to be an alternate Sengoku period, where humans and Centaurs coexist. At first, things were relatively fine between them – plains Centaurs and humans got along, and mountain Centaurs were regarded as gods, or the horses of the gods. All of that changed when someone realized they could use Centaurs, whom they saw as less than human. Suddenly, Centaurs were captured, brutalized, and made to work for humans as war horses, beasts of burden, and, as one scene implies, sex slaves. They are treated as livestock, and many kidnapped wild Centaurs (as opposed to those raised in captivity) have their arms amputated at the shoulder to make them more subservient. Most Centaurs are talked down to as if they’re intellectually inferior, which is frankly infuriating to read.

It’s difficult not to read this and think that Sumiyoshi is, at least a little, drawing a parallel between the Centaurs and indigenous peoples. There’s a similarity in the way the Centaurs are treated that could have come out of any history book; just substitute “centaur” for “First Nations” and “humans” for “conquistador/settler/colonist,” and you have a very similar story. The way Matsukaze and Kohibari are pursued after they escape from the human village also resembles narratives about the pursuit of escaped slaves in the United States. Whether intentional on the creator’s part or not, it’s still striking.

The book introduces us to Matsukaze, Kohibari, and a few other characters, but its primary objective is to set up the world and show us how it functions. Kohibari was captured and mutilated by humans as a child, and they foolishly believe that since they’ve owned him for roughly ten years, he’s forgotten things like “you murdered my family and cut off my arms” and feels loyalty to his human masters. On the other hand, Matsukaze has been living with the remnants of his family on a mountain, and he’s only in a position to be captured by humans because his son (or nephew; it’s not entirely clear), Gonta, ventured off the mountain and is being pursued by humans. Matsukaze is taken to save the child, and he turns out to be exactly what Kohibari has been waiting for—a strong individual who can help him affect his escape. Since all Matsukaze wants is to break out and find Gonta, this works, allowing him to see firsthand the hellish conditions captive Centaurs live under. Although he doesn’t say much, he’s taken aback by the existence of “armed” Centaurs, a term that has a double meaning: they’re Centaurs raised in captivity who have both of their arms as well as weapons, and they assist in centaur hunts. Whether they side with the humans over Centaurs or are afraid of their captors isn’t yet known, but it appears to be something that will be developed in future volumes.

Most of the book focuses on Kohibari and Matsukaze’s flight from the humans, and it serves to highlight how little Kohibari has been allowed to know and showcase Matsukaze’s basic kindness. Matsukaze could have made better progress without Kohibari, but this is the same man who willingly allowed himself to be captured to save a child he loves. He may grumble, but he’s not going to abandon the younger man to die, as his actions early in their journey demonstrate. The story takes on a buddy road trip dynamic with comedic elements, although the darker nature of the narrative is never far behind, even during Kohibari’s sillier moments.

Centaurs is a difficult story. It doesn’t shy away from its darker themes; instead, it wants us to acknowledge them and make our connections. However, it’s not a book devoid of hope, and even the cliffhanger at the end of this volume leaves room to think that all is not lost. This one’s worth the hype, with its compelling story and artwork that blends traditional Japanese imagery with manga style, not to mention the beautifully drawn horse bodies. Dark historical fantasy doesn’t get much better than this.

Digg deep!


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