"I would be delighted to offer any advice I can on understanding women. When I have some, I'll let you know!"
If Captain Picard still can't find an answer after boldly going across new life and new civilisations, we certainly don't have a chance!
Given the unknowable and impossible nature of that alien being that we call woman, it's no surprise that from the Harpies and Sirens to the wrathful harridan of Grendel's mother and beyond they emerge into our literature as strange and dangerous beasts. Having liberally cribbed from Tolkienesque fantasy for everything from Record of Lodoss War to Rage of Bahamut, it was perhaps inevitable that anime would move onto sourcing other myths - particularly when there's a strong affinity with Japan's own traditions of half-human beasts, whether the uniquitous trickster-fox kitsune or the spurned spite of serpent-woman kiyohime - and making them more approachable through the more personable nature of the Shinto spirits. Catching the wind of the great noise of internet buzz surrounding the emergence of the series of sex-comedy "Living With Monstergirls" doujinshi from the mangaka Okayado, Seven Seas Entertainment was quick to snap up the license of Okayado's Monster Musume, a professionalised version of the concept for a wider audience that dials back the hentai into "just" ecchi and becomes a bouncily busty Carry-On comedy. Not willing to limit itself to the low-hanging fruit of boob jokes though, Seven Seas has sought to explore the full potential of the setting of demi-humans; alongside the "silly" Monster Musume it's also licensed a "serious" counterpart, A Centaur's Life (originally called Centaur's Worries in Japan - Seven Seas probably changed the title to make it more easygoing and inviting).
Monster Musume has been perfectly placed to ride the zeitgeist and it's been a stunning success for Seven Seas - each volume released so far has stormed onto the New York Times manga bestseller lists with no sign of the runaway train running out of steam. What about A Centaur's Life, though? Both manga run in the same magazine, Monthly Comic Ryu, and A Centaur's Life is actually the elder sibling, having started in early 2011 over a year before Monster Musume; the mangaka Kei Murayama also does have form for quite unusual settings, also having created Kinoko Ningen no Kekkon, a yuri romance between mushroom-people. Does that make A Centaur's Life a more stately and considered performance that's acquired confidence through experience, or is it a has-been that's been left behind as an evolutionary dead-end?
Himeno Kimihara is an ordinary schoolgirl living an ordinary life in an ordinary town during an ordinary time in modern-day Japan. That she's a centauress is nothing out of the ordinary, for all the people of Earth are supernatural beings made flesh - angelfolk, mermaids, and monster-people of all shapes and sizes are one and all part of humankind in this world. There are stories of hairless beings with only two legs and no wings, but they're just silly stories for children that no-one takes seriously. Himeno doesn't have time for such fanciful tales, though, because as a growing teenage centauress she has a whole host of more immediate worries, from boys to homework, to preoccupy her time. Fortunately she has two good friends - the ram-horned satyr-girl Kyouko and the pointy-eared and leather-winged imp-girl Nozomi, to give her new perspectives on trotting along through her troubles and enjoying her life.
That's really all the synopsis you need, because A Centaur's Life is itself an almost aggressively ordinary and inconsequentially episodic slice-of-life affair. Issues that come up in these volumes of manga include revision for tests, protocol for stage-kisses in the school play, jogging in gym class, arguing over the TV remote, and a whole chapter of haircuts. This is all to do with the hair on Himeno's head - her equine hindquarters and tail are barely mentioned, and when she fluffs up her tail no-one notices. This is a good example of the problems with A Centaur's Life because there doesn't seem to be any actual reason for Himeno to even be a centaur. It doesn't make much sense.
Now against that it must be said that its companion Monster Musume is complete and ludicrous nonsense, but it's cheerful and light-hearted nonsense and more to the point it actually justifies its setting - even if it's only to set up daft ecchi scenarios, the characters' unique features and special abilities as monster girls regularly inform the action and create scenarios and complications, and they are integral for how they get about and around the setting. A Centaur's Life, however, is so relentlessly and crushingly focused on assuring us that mythical creatures are ordinary people living ordinary lives that it drains the manga of even the slightest drop of vitality. There are very-occasional brief quirks of a society of mythical beasts would function - Angelfolk's "halos" are hair and if they get cut off it's considered to be a hate crime; when talking about a horror movie the monster couldn't wear the victim's skin because a snake can't make itself fit into a centaur's shape - but really about 95% of the content here is exactly the same as you would discover in literally any other slice-of-life manga. When a bit of excitement happens as a criminal takes a girl hostage, Himeno saves the day with the very human concept of "Empty Mind" Zen Archery and not a horseshoe to the chops. Volumes two and three of the manga include an ongoing history of the characters' hometown Kanata City on the inside covers - this is exactly a plain description of Heian-era Japan which while it certainly has anthropological interest only reminds me that I'd be better-off buying a textbook than a manga in order to learn more. A Centaur's Life seems almost embarrassed by its own concept, which is not a good way to get readers engaged.
Now to be fair there is a reasonable amount of monster-like world-building in A Centaur's Life, albeit mostly relayed in between-chapter sidebars that discuss the evolutionary path of the different subspecies than actually in the story itself. Even then though, despite the odd references mentioned in the last paragraph there's not always a great deal of imagination on display. For instance, in one chapter when the characters go on an exchange to a merfolk school, the school... is exactly like any other school, except that the visitors are sloshing around in knee-deep water. The merfolk themselves even swim through the water upright, like seals yapping for beach-balls at Seaworld. Their teacher wears a pinstripe suit. And after all this, it bears emphasising that Himeno herself sleeps on an entirely ordinary bed at home despite the fact that she's a freakin' horse!
Also, the manga chooses a really, really bad method with which to distinguish itself from Monster Musume on the few occasions when it does stand on monster girl characteristics. Not a chapter goes by when the girls' boobs aren't flopping out all over the place in Monster Musume, and the "chapter zero" which opens up Volume 1 of A Centaur's Life (this chapter won Monthly Comic Ryu's internal Silver Dragon award for new artists, although I'm not sure why...) chooses to contrast itself to this in the most awkward, embarrassing, toe-curlingly cringeworthy way. A Centaur's Life wants to be a mature, reflective, relatively-grounded contemplation of alien life and times... and chooses to do this with a literal gynaecological examination as Himeno, Kyouko and Nozomi all look at each other's vaginas as they're curious about inter-species reproduction. This is the very first topic that comes up in the manga. I can see what A Centaur's Life is trying to do, it wants to be scientific and biological (there's an aside about how the government grants free life insurance to interspecies babies who are often born deformed, with a nice warped foetus to illustrate it - cheers, buddy), but it's just the skeeviest sort of disturbingly detailed fixation with the plumbing you'd associate with the lonelier corners of brony-dom. In a later chapter, we see a young Himeno's struggles to navigate her body around a toilet bowl which is at least briefer.
The repeated references to Monster Musume in this review might seem to be an irrelevant intrusion of a different manga, but these two do bear comparison to show just how badly A Centaur's Life gets it wrong. Monster Musume is a confection of a manga, completely superficial and insubstantial, but at least it's tasty; A Centaur's Life is mixing sawdust into your flour to make it go farther - not much flavour and not all that more nutritious either to make up for it. The basic slice-of-life incidents are mildly interesting on their own merits which should provide some undemanding moé enterainment - but why not buy an actual slice-of-life manga, something like Bunny Drop or K-ON, if that's the case? A Centaur's Life's heart's in the right place - it means well - but its desperation to be taken seriously only makes the experience painfully, excruciatingly earnest - something trying so hard to focus on being dignified and capital-W Worthy that it's scowlingly humourless in its lack of levity and constantly clumsily fumbles anything outside the pinprick of its attention and lacks the foresight to think things through.
Writer/Artist: Kei Murayama
Seven Seas Entertainment
High School, Comedy