Pandora Hearts 2-5 by Jun Mochizuki

Reading Pandora Hearts is like mentally treading water. There is so much going on that one is constantly churning the plot waters, trying to stay afloat. It’s not that I’m saying this is a bad thing or that I object to thinking—far from it!—but that I never appreciated episodic lulls so much as when they weren’t around to give me a chance to understand and process what just happened.

The first volume introduced readers to fifteen-year-old Oz Vessalius, who is banished to a mysterious dimension known as “the Abyss” during his coming-of-age ceremony. He escapes by entering into a contract with a “chain” (denizen of the Abyss) named Alice, who wants to search for her scattered memories in the real world. When they arrive, ten years have passed and they are welcomed by a strange trio, one of whom (Raven) bears a striking resemblance to Oz’s childhood friend, Gilbert.

The search for Alice’s memories begins in the second volume, with strong hints that the answer Oz seeks—what was the “sin” that led to his banishment?—lies within them. Oz and Alice have agreed to help an organization known as Pandora (which has several goals regarding investigating and gaining control over the Abyss) and have been assigned by one of its employees, the eccentric Xerxes Break, to take down an illegal contractor whose chain is devouring humans.

Now, at this point, I was thinking, “Okay, here’s our episodic gimmick. Oz and Alice deal with the dangerous contractors and collect memories and it’ll be a sort of basic shounen fantasy.” But that’s actually not how it turns out. Any time Xerxes arranges some sort of encounter with a contractor or chain, it always leads to major plot developments. Sometimes this involves answering some questions—the identity of the braided man we keep seeing in Alice’s memories, for example—but just as often generates several more. I considered keeping a scorecard of questions raised and questions answered so that I could keep track of what issues were still outstanding.

Mangaka Jun Mochizuki also skillfully employs flashbacks to flesh out our understanding of Oz, who is far more complex (and clever and resilient) than he initially appears. His affinity for and faith in Alice, for example, persists despite various people advising him not to trust her, and we gradually learn that this is because he sees a lot of himself in her. Both he and Alice have cause to question why they exist, and since he, as a child, was afraid to pursue the truth regarding his father’s animosity towards him, he admires that Alice is fearlessly pursuing the recovery of her memories. Too, Oz displays an almost alarming equanimity about his situation, which can again be traced back to his father’s coldness, when Oz learned to “accept everything as it is.”

The end result is a story that combines a non-stop spooling out of multi-layered plot threads with some genuinely affecting character work. I particularly appreciate that the female leads—Alice and Sharon, a Pandora employee—are not the character types they initially seem to be (tsundere and meek girl, respectively) and just about any scene wherein Alice feels left out at the signs of affection between Oz and others or just vulnerable in general is a big favorite of mine.

Another aspect of Pandora Hearts that I must commend is the artwork, which, as MJ amply illustrated in a Fanservice Friday post on Manga Bookshelf, is definitely fujoshi-friendly. Consider the evidence:

Shallow confession: although I really like Raven for himself, I admit that I also enjoy just looking at him. It’s not all pretty fellows, though, as Mochizuki’s renderings of the Abyss are creepy and imaginative, and the inhabitants even more so. There are a few references to Alice in Wonderland scattered throughout, too, but it’s nothing that even comes close to dominating the story or its landscape.

As of the fifth volume, Pandora officials have vowed to protect Oz, who is destined to play a major role in their conflict with the Baskervilles, remnants of a clan that battled the four great families (who eventually formed Pandora) 100 years ago and sacrificed the capital city as an offering to the entity in control of the Abyss (not to mention being responsible for sending Oz there in the first place). Plus, Sharon has been abducted and someone just may be in league with the enemy. Many other questions—about both past and future—abound, which ensure that I will keep reading (and hoping everything is ultimately resolved) to the very end.

I hope I haven’t given the impression that Pandora Hearts is a slog, because it truly isn’t. It’s engaging, intriguing, and sometimes even funny. What it never is is tranquil or relaxing, so be sure to save it for a time when your brain needs a little exercise.

Review copies for volumes three through five provided by the publisher.

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  1. Weirdly, my initial reaction to you giving this a positive (if exhausted) review is relief. I was beginning to think I was the only critic to really enjoy this series. THANK YOU FOR VALIDATING ME. 😀

    • Haha. You kind of won me over with the cuffs, too. I kept noticing them. 🙂

      • Well, they are beautiful, no? 😀

        I’m really pleased, too, with your focus on Mochizuki’s character work. I find these characters to be complex and really compelling, and I am happy to see you agree.

        • The cuffs are nice, but I’m still a “long coats for the win” kind of girl.

          And thank you! No one is exactly the kind of character you thought they’d be, judging from appearances or the fact that this is a shounen series. It’s most impressive.

  2. While I’m not reading Pandora Hearts, seeing Raven makes me want to. Shallow, I know but he is so good looking.

    Anyway, I have read volume 1 but didn’t like it much that I decided not to buy more volumes. I know a lot of people love this series but I’m still not sure whether I want to read it or not. I have been looking for some new interesting shounen titles but I don’t know if this would be interesting for me.

    • Not only is Raven good-looking, he’s also endearing as can be.

      After I read volume one, I was kind of overwhelmed by everything that was going on. It’s not that things cease to go on after that point, which I think I’ve sufficiently stressed, but that they start to make a bit more sense and, more importantly, one starts to care more about the characters.

  3. I just wanted to say it is nice to see reviewers that like Pandora Hearts. It is a great manga and rereading it really makes me appreciate how meticulously well-planned it was from the outset. In the first volumes Mochizuki was already dropping hints as to what is going on. Some things are mentioned in advance, like ‘head-hunting’ in volume 3 that didn’t become important until the manga hit double digits.

    And the plot never loses its steam. It just becomes more awesome.

    • Yes, I’ve begun to notice those references to the “headhunter”! Also, there was a flash of some guy in Alice’s memory who called her a “little pig.” Is that the Baskerville head, I wonder? (Please don’t tell me in either case!)

      I’m glad to hear that these hints bear fruit, because sometimes it’s hard to know how well-planned something is and whether you can just relax and be sure all will be explained.

      • The manga is still coming out in Japan, so it is impossible to tell for certain that it is well-planned to the very end. However, the vague hints from the first volumes are being elaborated on, so it seems to confirm that it was planned from the word go. And if the Headhunter arc, which finished recently, is any indication, it will be awesome. Mochizuki pulled off a really amazing stuff there.

        Alice’s memories are definitely important. I’m myself interested in Jack, even though I have read all the available in Japan chapters, he still a mystery to me.

  4. I have really been enjoying Pandora Hearts as well. I think it’s kind of like the Lost tv show – lots of questions, mysteries, and what the heck is going on here, and enough answers being handed out to make it all not overwhelming. (Note – I never actually watched Lost, so I’m just going off what I have read about it.)

    Want to also add my love for the artwork. And Raven – and how he patiently endures all the bullying inflicted on him by Oz.

    • Yeah, it is like Lost in that way. Except I have more faith in Pandora Hearts. I refused to watch Lost until it ended so I could ask people if they felt satisfied. The general consensus, at least among those I polled, was “no,” so I never bothered watching it. 🙂

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