Ran and the Gray World, Vol. 1
Content warning: Pedophilia and child abuse.
Ran and the Gray World is a delightful manga series about Ran, a young girl with immense magical powers and the hijinks she gets up to. She, like many her age, is enamoured with the idea of being an adult, and with being just as beautiful and amazing as her mom. The difference is, she can magically age her body, which also increases the magnitude of her magical powers. So basically, every parent’s worst nightmare.
Except, apparently, her own. Shizuka and Zen, her mom and dad respectively, have a high standing in their magical community and immense magical powers, but are very indulgent with Ran. Shizuka is more likely to skip merrily into mayhem with Ran than admonish her, while Zen dotes on them both unreservedly. Ran’s brother, Jin, takes on a lot of traditional and day-to-day parenting roles, and is constantly on the verge of either an aneurysm or a murder-suicide.
There’s a lot going for this manga. The art is fabulous – rarely does a comic or manga so fully capture what magic can look like. Articulating the look and feel of things that effervescent and dazzling is exceptional even in movies and animation. In a static image, it’s even more so. Irie also shows how thoroughly exasperating and adorable children at that age can be, especially Ran. As much as her brother (or I) may be tempted to tie her to a chair, it’s also impossible not to be charmed by her and the world she lives in.
Lots of different topics are included in this story, including growing up, love and its phases, bullying, ableism, friendship, ageism, femininity, power, and taking responsibility for past wrongs. I really enjoyed how Irie approached the majority of these topics. This isn’t a perfect story, but my main grievance with this story outweighs all the rest of what I found troubling.
As you’d expect from the title, the story revolves around Ran’s growth, but we get to see other people’s journeys as well. Irie shows how new perspectives are invaluable, regardless of a person’s stage in life. There’s also a certain…I almost want to say strictness with how Irie treats her characters. Even with all the magic in the world, there’s no safety from loss, disappointments, heartbreak, and consequences. All the characters’ growth feels earned, and I definitely cheered for them.
Different versions of femininity were represented, as well as different forms of strength. One character is the Japanese equivalent of an ideal 50’s housewife in her restrained elegance and demure politeness. Another character is basically Woman Crush Wednesday, if Wednesday was every day, and is comfortable in her own skin regardless of how fem she’s being. There’s also Shizuka, who is the fantasy Sexy Super Mom/Wife/Boss many of us wish we were. (Now that I think of it, she’s a lot like Morticia, if Morticia wasn’t goth and a real witch.) Characters like Shizuka and Ran have a colossal amounts of magical power, while others have no magic at all. Instead, they have scrappy tenacity or incredible gifts as a researcher. Irie shows how these are all valid ways of being, and no kind of strength or beauty is inherently superior to another.
It was especially refreshing to see powerful magic based on traditionally feminine things, with a plethora of applications, whether in battles or daily life. Many different kinds of power had their moment in the spotlight, and other than glib shit talk, everyone focused on how best to complement each other when it came down to business. The same collaborative and communal mindset is extended to blending magic, family, and community seamlessly, including how the magical community coordinates with the non-magical community. Some shonen mangas and animes will always have a special place in my heart, but it’s such a RELIEF to do away with all the dick jousting.
How Irie portrays parenting was also a huge plus for me. Long distance parenting was touched on, and although it wasn’t explored at length, there was honesty about how it can hurt, cause tension, and affect young children. There was also representation of non-punishment based discipline in Ran’s family. Shizuka and Zen’s support is just that, support. Ran and Jin are given space to try, to make mistakes, and to learn on their own terms. As we follow Ran on her adventures, we see her having healthy boundaries, a sense of direction, and a sense of self reflection leading to her growth, not punishment.
And now for what bothered me in this series. Remember how I said this story talks about ageism? Well. The way it did so was… hrm… ah… DISGUSTING. Instead of actually addressing ageism, some swamp monster of a romance was shoehorned in and made central to the story, so you couldn’t even ignore it if you wanted to. Did said romance go anywhere? No. Was it still all kinds of fucked up? YES.
Ran, in her aged up body, is hit on and courted by Outarou, who’s presumably in his thirties. He keeps trying to persuade her to make out, even when she’s reticent. He tries to get sexual with her. He gets jealous when her friend/love interest from her school shows up – who, by the way, IS NON-MAGICAL AND LOOKS JUST LIKE THE KID HE IS. He ASKS HER PARENTS TO MARRY HER. He can’t even hide behind the excuse of mistaking her for someone older, because not only does he assume her to be in FUCKING HIGH SCHOOL when he first saw her, Ran DOESN’T ACT MATURE. At ALL. And he NOTICES that about her. He also notices all kinds of other clues that gives away her age, starting from the moment they met. And yeah, he figures it out, to which he says, “I love you, even if you’re ten years old.” Supposedly, it shows growth on his part, since he used to be a child-hating-ass, BUT IT’S GODDAMN PEDOPHILIA NO MATTER HOW YOU TURN IT AND HAS FUCK ALL TO DO WITH ACTUALLY ADDRESSING AGEISM.
Again, it goes nowhere, but some people liked this arc enough to request Irie draw non-canon illustrations of them being lovey-dovey, which BLOWS MY GODDAMN MIND. Outarou is a pretty big character who grows in real and poignant ways, making this pedophilia non-sense all the more abominable and bizarre.
There were other problems, like how mainstream ideals of beauty were will upheld as the default, how women and girls were “accidentally” sexy, how patriarchal tropes were regurgitated, and that sexual harassment and toxic masculinity were played for jokes. These are common beats in manga, and some people may be able to look past them. Either way, they appear diminutive even though they were prevalent, because they weren’t central to the story in the way that the pseudo-romance was.
While I can’t encourage people to overlook the problematic aspects of this story, I can say there’s so much to love about this manga, it’s impossible to list it all. There’s also lots of different catnip, like a shapeshifter finding his One True Lurve, enemies-to-friends/lovers, kooky adventures, and food porn. All the good parts of the story created a beautiful adventure that I really treasured, and in ways that were wacky, beautiful, or adorable, Irie shows how a person’s unique ways of thinking are their own magic. Moments somber and zany are blended so beautifully together, to the point that one element enhances the other. Irie isn’t the first or last to do so, but her style and execution is remarkable. She’s honestly one of the most imaginative mangaka I’ve ever come across, and few endings made me ache as sweetly as the final panel of this manga did.
Overall, this story was a C+ for me. Without the main problematic issue, it’d be an A, but since it does exist in the story, I can’t just ignore it.
For those of you that aren’t comfortable reading Ran and the Gray World because of its problems, go ahead and read Aki Irie’s other works. She’s written a lot of short stories, and the ones I’ve read don’t have the same problems as this series. She’s also got a new series, North-by-Northwest out that’s being serialized in Japan and North America at I thiiiiink around the same pace, though I haven’t read it yet. For everyone who wants to give Ran and the Gray World a chance, there are seven volumes in total, and the fourth one will be released on August 20th. The first three volumes are available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats. If you want to read ahead you’ll have to order the Japanese version, but honestly, I’d recommend you wait. Not only do these sales show publishers there’s interest in Irie’s work, I do feel that the texts are still important to understanding the story. To my fellow Canadians, if you’re ordering off of Amazon, make sure to spell ‘gray’ with an ‘a’ or Amazon won’t know what you mean.