Levius/est is a series set in the 19th century in a post-war era where M.M.A. fighting is king. Not that kind of M.M.A. though — here, M.M.A. stands for Mechanical Martial Arts and each nation has its own fighter. It’s a series that recently got a Netflix TV show in America and serves to mix fighting with steampunk in a cool way. Series creator Haruhisa Nakata brings some impressively detailed pencils and layout design to a book that’s visually stunning in its fights, its fantasy dreamscapes, and its character study.
This book opens with a woman named Natalia who is an M.M.A. fighter like Levius and soon ends up on his team. She quickly becomes an interest thanks to an intense battle she nearly loses. The book lays out the general idea of steam and how it works during the battle and how these cybernetically augmented fighters can turn their blood into steam and even fight when dead thanks to the steam in their veins. Natalia serves as a surrogate for the reader since she’s unfamiliar with Levius and she also helps inform us the stakes are very high as lives are lost in the ring all the time.
Soon though, Levius is called away as he is set to fight an undefeated fighter named Oliver E. Kingsley. This is where the story goes from straight fight book to interesting historical drama. Levius soon meets a man in robes who takes him to his father. There we see what is left of his father and are told what the “est” means in the title. The scope of the series is made quite clear here as Levius is asked to accept his destiny. If he doesn’t, Kingsley will kill him. This mirrors Levius’ father’s backstory which reveals he wanted to lead to bring peace to the world. There’s a message here about sacrificing your wants for the greater good, but for a character like Levius who actually hates his father thanks to history rubbing his name in the mud, that’s a hard pill to swallow.
In general, this is a wild combination of steampunk meets globalization as we learn it’s on the top-tier fighters’ shoulders which country can call the shots. I skipped volume 1, but had a blast with volume 2 catching up on Levius’ personal journey and figuring out how this M.M.A.-centered society works.
Speaking of the M.M.A., this is book is gorgeous. Nakata’s style is very American (the manga even reads from left to right), with a lot of attention focused on detail in characters and environments. The layout structure speeds up and slows down fights very well and there are quite a few layout designs used to tell this story. Conventionally, manga reduces the panel structure by its nature, but here I was surprised to find many double-page layouts and pages that stretch scenes further. The look of these characters is hyper-realistic too. The detail in the characters’ beards, eyes, and faces makes them feel more real and present in scenes.
I had a blast with this steampunk meets tournament style fight manga thanks to a rich backstory unveiled midway through and the incredible visuals. If I were to reduce it to movie comparisons, this is Hunger Games meets Blood Sport with steampunk sprinkled on top.