Sexy Voice and Robo by Iou Kuroda: A-

From the back cover:
Working part-time as a telephone-dating operator, Nico Hayashi has plenty of clients eager to engage her in titillating conversation. But what her customers don’t know is this: the person they’re flirting with is really a fourteen-year-old junior high school girl with a secret agenda.

On the phone she’s known as Sexy Voice. But, really, she’s more than a professional flirt. Secretly, she wants to change the world and maybe become a spy and fortuneteller, too.

Along for the ride is her friend Iichiro Sudo. He’s an underemployed twentysomething hipster with an obsession for collecting toy robots. Together they are Sexy Voice and Robo… two people doing their best to bring some hope into this crazy world.

Fourteen-year-old Nico Hayashi is an observer of human nature. She loves talking to strangers and has a part-time job working for a tele-club, through which she lures lonely men out for meetings and observes their behavior from a distance as they wait for her to arrive. One day, as she’s doing this, she meets an old man who, noting her expertise at matching character traits to voices, enlists her help in analyzing a recording of a kidnapper. Nico, who harbors dreams of being either a spy or a fortune-teller, goes one step further and tries to find the culprit. Once she does, she pursues him, thinking, “If I lose him, that’s it…. I have no idea where this kid is, but right now I’m the only one in the universe who can save him.”

Nico’s success leads to further assignments from the old man, including checking on the welfare of a runaway, investigating flaws in a company’s new product, and locating a kid who stole a bunch of money from a gambling parlor. She uses one of her tele-club contacts, Iichiro Sudo (whom she nicknames Robo since he collects robotic toys), to do her bidding throughout, and generally has a pretty good time of things until she meets Mr. Forgetful.

Mr. Forgetful seems kind and benevolent, but forgets everything after three days. Nico evidently knows him, though, and suggests that perhaps she’s his daughter. They spend a few days together, shopping and eating unagi, but Mr. Forgetful eventually receives a mysterious assignment. It’s unclear at first just how much Nico knows, but eventually we learn that Mr. Forgetful is an assassin sent to target the old man and that she’s been trying to prevent it. Nico wants to save them both, and convinces Mr. Forgetful not to carry out his assignment, a failure for which he is later killed.

Nico plays with people. She enjoys leading them around and having them under her control, but it’s a devastating blow when she learns that her actions ultimately led to Mr. Forgetful’s death. For a while, she tries to shift the blame onto the old man, but can’t escape the implications of what she’s done. While a career as a spy or a fortune-teller sounded ideal only a short time ago, Nico now reflects that controlling someone’s secrets or fate is not what she wants to do. Instead, she wants to bring hope. This impression is reinforced when she meets an elderly retired spy who did the job because she was the best one for it (just like Nico, thinking “I’m the only one in the universe who can!”) and who has no regrets about the “unhappy endings” where others ended up getting hurt. Nico isn’t sure what she wants to be, but she knows she wants a happy ending.

Unfortunately, we don’t get to see much of what happens after Nico processes this information, as there are only two more chapters to the series. In these, though, she’s far less controlling, allowing herself to be led along by a string of mysterious notes left in love hotels and even attempting to set Robo up with a lady friend. Perhaps that’s her way of following through with the goal to bring hope, even though her plan backfires when said lady friend ends up being mentally disturbed. I’d love to see this series continued someday and see Nico using her observational skills and cleverness in a more selfless way.

I really admire how Kuroda-sensei tells the story, because he doesn’t feed one the conclusions about Nico’s revelation on a spoon; all the clues are there, but one must make one’s own connections. Visual elements also help show Nico’s state of mind, as we often see her observing the city from a lofty perch, looking down on everyone from a distance while ruminating on how it’s easier to talk to strangers. When she’s on assignment, though, we get more of a street view as she’s down amongst the world and its people, trying to accomplish her objective. I began to wonder whether Nico had any friends, but by the end we’ve seen a classmate of hers a couple of times and she also begins treating Robo more as a person than a minion. Perhaps there’s hope for her yet to make the meaningful human connections that the elderly spy suggested she would never have since she’s “too busy fishing to get hooked.”

Ultimately, Sexy Voice and Robo is a multi-layered work that gives readers a lot to consider. I reviewed it as part of the Manga Moveable Feast, and can definitely see why it was chosen, since there are so many aspects one could talk about. Please visit David Welsh’s blog, Manga Curmudgeon, and check out the contributions of the other participants!

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