A pauper must parade as a prince when the wealthy heir of a massive corporation goes missing, but for young Atsuko getting roped into this situation might just be the thing that changes her outlook on life.
Life is almost too much for 17-year old Atsuko - she’s poor, treated as smelly trash by her classmates, and has an ungrateful drunkard for a father. School is hell, home is hell, and things don’t look to be getting better when her father suggests that she become an escort to go on paid dates to help pay for his debts, but things get even worse when she is kidnapped by a a few wealthy boys led by Itaru Nogi. As it turns out, Atsuko looks eerily similar to Itaru, and when Itaru goes missing she gets roped into standing in for him. While the luxury of the Nogi household seems like a dream world to Atsuko she soon learns that it might be just as cold as the world she knew at home, but pretending to be someone else entirely might just be the thing that changes her dark outlook on life.
Atsuko’s world is cold, and perhaps the strongest aspect of The Prince in His Dark Days’ debut is the way that it embraces the way bleakness permeates Atsuko’s existence in setting up this story as an interesting take on the pauper becoming a prince storyline. We see this bleakness established right off the bat as Atsuko’s world is shown between her drunken and ungrateful father and her miserable school-life. It’s downright depressing, but what make this opening powerful is the way that it shows a general sense of hopelessness continually seeping into Atsuko as she bears the weight of little inhumanities such as people not wanting to touch things she;s touched, and her father throwing back food in her face. Her reaction in the face of this is shown well too - we see her eyes obscured by her glasses in situations where she is fully faced by the disapproval from others, and I thought this was an effective way to represent the disaffectedness in her emotional state to begin this volume. All of this also helped to bring out her inner philosophy of love being a curse, and this initial portrait painted of Atsuko in the early going was fascinating and a strong anchoring point to make me interested in where the series was going.
While the stark picture painted of Atsuko’s existence was a strong emotional starting point for this series, the execution of the rest of the first chapter left a little bit to be desired. Her first meeting with Itaru and his associates Ryo and Nobunari was difficult to follow, in part because the three boys were drawn in substantially the same manner without the narration making it clear until later on who was who. This left me confused during their initial dialogue as things happened relatively quickly with Atsuko being taken to Itaru’s house without much context to explain what the relationship between these guys was. I got a fairly profound sense of tonal whiplash in the scenes immediately following because we go from some uncomfortably rapey vibes to Itaru being shown as into cross-dressing in a surprisingly light-hearted scene before Atsuko is taken home. I’ve had some difficulty knowing what to think about this - on one hand, it was very difficult to grasp what I was supposed to be taking away from all of that, but at the same time the book sold very well Atsuko’s general fear of being exploited as well as the shock at Itaru’s behaviour. The chapter ends off with Atsuko suddenly agreeing to stand in for Itaru after his disappearance in an about-face that felt a little bit abrupt given the emotional baggage that this chapter spent much of its time establishing.
The following chapters show Atsuko slowly becoming acclimated to her role at the Nogi household, and I particularly liked the way that we saw the layers slowly getting peeled back with regard to Itaru’s associated Ryo and Nobunari. We slowly see their respective relationships with Itaru brought into the picture through their interactions with Atsuko, and I thought that both of these characters were well established over the course of these chapters. Another interesting aspect was that of Itaru’s character slowly being spun out despite him being completely absent, and I thought it was very interesting to see him characterized at a distance through Atsuko slowly learning about his relationships with his associates as well as his family. We don’t get any firm conclusions, but this was interesting to see and I thought this set this series well heading into the next volume. The final key aspect of the back-half of this volume is the slow progression that we see in Atsuko’s character as her perspective slowly changes. Her emotional arc was the most difficult for me to get onside for because of its unevenness - it wasn’t especially clear at some points why she would suddenly change her perspective or react in a certain way, making her progression fall a little bit flat in some places. Despite this, I particularly enjoyed the scenes which saw her own world view being challenged as she learned more about Itaru, and I think that her story will have a lot of potential as her relationships with the rest of the cast continue to be developed.
The art in The Prince in His Dark Days Vol. 1 is likely to be a bit of a sticking point for many, and I definitely found that it left something to be desired in a number of areas. Yamanaka’s sensei’s character designs aren’t particularly impressive by themselves, but one of the problems I encountered in reading was that the boys largely look the same at first glance. This accentuated the issue I noted above where it was difficult to tell who was who, and this made for a confusing read which saw me flipping back pages to try and place dialogue into context up until Itaru’s disappearance. It was also difficult to see the real resemblance between Itaru and Atsuko particularly because of the difference their facial expressions as well as that in shading between Itaru’s seeming brown hair and Atsuko’s black, making for a weird disconnect when we are told over and over that they look identical. However, I did feel that Yamanaka’s art did do a good job conveying the emptiness of Atsuko’s world early on through the sparse use of backgrounds showing the isolation Atsuko experiences, and as mentioned above I liked the way that her face was obscured by her glasses as a representation of her putting up a wall to cope with the outside world.
One thing I did notice was that the range of facial expressions used to portray Atsuko shifted after the first chapter to show her as being more expressive, but this felt at odds with her portrayal in the first chapter despite her not yet having experienced significant growth. We also get some scenes where she is draw in a more cartoony way to express her embarrassment, and this felt like it was at odds with the bleakly shame she showed in response to these types of situation in the first chapter. It almost felt as though Yamanaka-sensei felt the first volume was too bleak in tone and decided to try and add these expressions to make things less serious, but I felt this was an odd choice because the way that Atsuko’s depressing situation was shown in the first chapters was one of the aspects that caught my eye initially.
The Prince is His Dark Days Vol. 1 is dark, uneven, and difficult to process, but I was definitely compelled by its interesting thematic presentation of a number of difficult themes to keep on reading. While this story is undeniably powerful, the execution is not quite there - the art and plotting each had a few suspect moments that left me wondering at times. That said, this is definitely a story for those looking for a story that takes on themes of despair, hopelessness, and self-identity from a number of interesting angles through all of the principle cast members, and I’m definitely interested to see how this will be built on as the series proceeds.
The Prince in His Dark Days Vol. 1 was translated by Alethea and Athena Nibbley and published by Kodansha Comics USA on September 27th, 2016. Created by Hico Yamanaka, the series ran in Kodansha’s Aria magazine.
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