Papillon 1 by Miwa Ueda: B+

When I was in the sixth grade, a particular series of books was very popular. It focused on a pair of blonde twin sisters, the older of whom was kind and thoughtful while the younger was selfish and scheming. Most of the time, the good twin allowed her conniving sibling to have her way, but when it came to a certain boy, she drew the line. Their names were Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield and the series was named after the school they attended, Sweet Valley High.

I mention this because the initial setup for Papillon is pretty similar. Ageha, a shy and bespectacled nobody, and her younger sister Hana, the most popular girl in school, are blonde twins who were raised by different relatives. The only person Ageha feels understands her is a boy named Ryûsei, and when Hana sees them growing closer she moves in to snag Ryûsei for herself. With some encouragement from a decidedly unorthodox guidance counselor, Ageha makes an effort to shed her meek persona and win Ryûsei back. (Her name means “butterfly.” Get it?)

While the concept may not be new, Hana and Ageha’s relationship is still fascinating. Somehow, the masterfully manipulative way in which Hana competes against her sister is more credible for occurring between siblings and hints at all kinds of intriguing psychological baggage. The relationship gives the character depth, as it seems she must have some deeper motivation for her actions than your garden variety Mean Girl. Similarly, Ageha’s powerlessness in the face of her sister’s devious ways also rings true. In the back of the book, Ueda-sensei thanks some relationship therapists for their input and advice; I’d say it definitely paid off.

Unfortunately, Ryûsei is not as well developed. He’s a typical adolescent boy: good-hearted in general but vulnerable when a pretty girl turns on the charm. Arguably, though, he was never meant to be more than a bone of contention between the girls and a catalyst for Ageha’s metamorphosis. The most vivid supporting character is actually Kanda, Ageha’s chubby pal, who betrays her friend when she sees an opportunity to gain attention from the more popular students, a classic maneuver among status-conscious high school girls.

While the term “soap opera” would certainly apply to Papillon, it also offers an insightful look at the relationships between girls. For that alone, this title is one that I will be following with interest.

Papillon is published by Del Rey. Five volumes have been released in Japan so far while the second English release is due in late January 2009.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

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