With a new anime season comes renewed interest in the manga on which many new shows are based. Such is the case with Kodansha’s recent release of Tesla Note Vol. 1. The manga is written by Masafumi Nishida and Tadayoshi Kubo, with art by Kota Sannomiya. It grabbed my attention thanks to its premise (any comic that namedrops Nikola Tesla must be fairly tongue-in-cheek, right?), but how good is it really? Does Vol. 1 kick the series off to a promising start?
So what’s it about?
Here’s a plot summary courtesy of Kodansha Comics:
Botan Negoro is not your average high school girl—she’s been trained to be an elite government agent since she was young. She’s also an expert on the “Tesla Fragment”, which appear throughout the world to cause supernatural chaos. Her mission is to retrieve these fragments, and to do so she teams up with the smarmy, self-proclaimed top agent Kuruma. But this is no easy mission, even for an elite team… An all-new action manga from the writer of Tiger and Bunny!
So about that premise…
Tesla Note Vol. 1 is very quick to introduce its base plot and characters…to its own detriment. All the series’ key elements are introduced by the end of chapter one, and none of them make a good first impression or trigger much interest in what’s to come. This is largely due to the book’s style and tone of exposition.
Nowhere is this more pronounced than with the introduction of the protagonist, Botan. No sooner does she appear on-panel than she gets into a skilled fist-fight, her aptitude for which is then explained by a government agent who has come to recruit her for a unique mission. Said agent explains Botan’s past and training history to the reader…and to Botan herself, as if she weren’t already aware. The dialogue doesn’t even try to make sense within the context of the world itself. It’s ham-fisted in delivery and, by nature of coming through an unrelated character, doesn’t afford Botan any interiority with regards to her past.
Unfortunately, the explanations we get for the series’ sci-fi elements aren’t any more enjoyable. Botan’s mission involves tracking down dangerous Tesla fragments, which vaguely possess some sort of vague power harnessed through Nikola Tesla’s vague inventions. Note that this is all vague but not mysterious; it’s not so much that there are questions to be answered as it is that the creators don’t seem to have pondered enough questions about the lore and mechanics to deliver a satisfying final product. What makes the Tesla fragments different from any other sci-fi energy source? That’s yet to be determined, and as a result there’s little sense of what Botan’s missions are ultimately going to entail.
A comedy manga, this is not
Nonsensical sci-fi jargon can theoretically be fun and handled satisfyingly without strict attention to detail. Such an approach is generally contingent, however, on an a sense of humor or general awareness of the genre expectations a series is working with. Tesla Note delivers neither of these things. This is an action manga about the devastating secret inventions of Nikola Tesla that…actually expects the reader to take that premise seriously. There’s no grounding of the technology’s implications in Tesla’s real inventions, nor any creative liberties that take his ideas to new, absurdist extremes.
That’s not to say there’s no comedy here, however. It’s just focused on the relationship between Botan and her partner Kuruma. Kuruma is significantly older and more experienced than Botan, and thus looks down on her as an incompetent rookie. She, in turn, views him as being an old jerk and makes frequent references to him being a pervert who’s sexually harassing her in the workplace. If you think that sounds like a tricky topic to make comedy out of, rest assured that Tesla Note does nothing to prove you wrong. Frankly the obvious distastefulness almost works to these scenes benefit; they end up reading as so mind-numbing in their bad choices that it’s difficult to actually take offense so much as just feel disbelief.
Does it look good at least?
No art could outright make up for this manga’s glaring flaws in tone, characters, and exposition, but are the visuals at least competent enough to dull the pain of reading it?
In short, no. That’s not to say there’s no artistic skill on display here. Rather, there’s a lot of it. The sense of three-dimensional depth throughout is very impressive, there’s good attention to detail in the backgrounds, and there are some brief moments of appropriately disgusting horror imagery as well.
The problem? The screen tones. The screen tone use throughout is outright abhorrent, making whole pages at a time actively unpleasant to look at. The same patterns get used over and over, coating panels with a shine that severely hinders the eye’s ability to move from focal point to focal point. The flow of action is also disrupted by this constant sameness in shade as one has to consciously look all around a panel to find all the elements of note rather than being successfully steered along by the composition choices.
Also, the fight scenes are bad. This is an action manga with action that’s difficult to follow and lacks any sense of stakes. The flow of movement from panel to panel is never harder to follow than during battles, and there’s simply nothing fun or memorable in the execution of what should be the manga’s most exciting moments. There’s no sense of physical impact to any of the violence, and thus no real stakes either.
Tesla Note Vol. 1 is surprising not so much in its failures but in the extremity of them. It would be one thing for the art to look a bit unpolished and for some of the exposition to be clunky. What we get, however, is writing that brings no sense of joy whatsoever to the premise and fails to tie the characters’ emotional struggles even remotely to the stakes of their mission. Visually, meanwhile, the screen tones are so poorly applied that they actually make the act of reading the manga harder. Tesla Note is a shiny, action-packed series that grabs one’s attention with its premise just to fail to deliver on any of said premise’s charm.
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