I will fully admit that when it comes to reading manga and watching anime that I find myself comparing the two in reviews. It’s an annoying habit that I hope to break with this review, but for the record Prison School the anime was one of if not the best anime from 2015. If you have no interest in reading, than you can stop now and go watch it. If you have interest in reading then good, you've come to the right place. The biggest twist about Prison School is the title. After all, this is a manga and its Japan the very country that brought us Battle Royale so it would seem like with a title like that it could be a very serious and dark story. And that is the absolute charm of Prison School, because it’s not dark and serious rather it’s hilarious and perverted. Unlike other comedies though, the characters are serious and unaware that their life is hilarious. Instead it’s just a really accurate look at the psyche of a teenage boys, among other things.
The setting is a school that has recently opened enrollment to male students for the first time in fifteen years (or longer I don’t remember exactly and it’s a thick volume to hunt for such a small detail). We follow the only five male students in the school Kiyoshi, Shingo, Gackt, Joe and Andre. They learn the hard way on the first day that none of the girls will or want to talk to them. We as the reader are given extra info as something called the “Shadow Student Council” has posted notices informing the girls not to talk to the boys or they will be sent to prison. The boys on the other hand are completely unaware of this detail.
Eventually one of the girls breaks and talks to Kiyoshi who is our main character. They bond over Sumo and she asks if he’ll go to a college Sumo event in a few weeks which thrills him beyond belief, even though he’s actually not that into Sumo. He doesn’t share this with the other four boys though because they’ve given up on relationships and decided to just catch glimpses of boobs and underwear… until the evening when they decide to go peeping in the showers.
Events do not unfold the way they would want, well they kind of do for Kiyoshi, but the results are the shame. They’re all publicly shamed in front of the girls and then locked up in prison. The rules are laid out for them, do your time and return to class. If you don’t want to be in prison call your parents and tell them you’re being expelled for peeping. The Shadow Student Council is put in charge of the five boys which introduces us to Meiko, Hana and Mari. The boys still attend class via monitor and they have work detail after class. In this particular volume Kiyoshi becomes adamant about escaping for his date. At that point it’s a prison break plot-line… in high school.
Again, it’s the fact that the characters and story always takes the situation seriously that makes something like a prison break story-line really funny. It’s also intense because you do wonder if Kiyoshi is going to get caught or if the other boys will find out and rat him out. To put it frankly, all of the tropes and jokes about prison are in this story at some point. Creator Akira Hiramoto just manages to flip them on their head due to the high school element and that’s what makes them humorous.
The story is masterfully told and while there’s a bit of a slow burn feeling to the story, it’s actually paced wonderfully. The characters all manage to feel unique and have their own voice. None of them come across as a well-worn archetype, but really unique and authentic characters. I don’t really think anyone will relate with the characters given their extreme circumstances, but maybe you can find some surface level emotions to relate to… but that's not really the point of the story. You feel for their situation, but you have to remember that they're responsible for being in that situation.
There’s a decent amount of fan service in the book. “Fan Service” if you’re unfamiliar with the term can be equated to what we call “cheesecake” in American comics. It’s sexually charged artwork that for the most part has nothing to do with the story, but is there for the reader to enjoy. And it is enjoyable. It might seem like it serves no purpose to the story, but this is teenage boys and having been one myself there is no other time in a boy’s life that he thinks about nudity more. That’s just fact, sad fact, but fact none the less. What I'm getting at is that it does actually serve the story, but if that's not your thing then that's cool too. I have no problem with occasional fan service/cheesecake, especially when the story is as good as it is in Prison School.
The art is amazing. It’s extremely detailed and photo-realistic. It also has wonderful scenes in which it’s grotesquely realistic. There’s photo-realistic and then there’s absolute realism in which everyone doesn’t look beautiful, but rather kind of ugly. This is used for the humor in the story and it is remarkable. The change is so dynamic and yet as I said twice before, very serious which is exactly what makes the visual gag so funny.
Hiramoto's character designs have a range from really strange and unique to seemingly average. With Hiramoto’s designs it’s all about presenting real looking students. Average even. And he does just that because they can’t all be good-looking and beautiful. Sure the women are, but even they have an average quality to them. Characters like Gackt and Andre stand out in the extreme at times, but they still fit the realism of the world.
This is a thick book. If you’re used to a normal manga, then picture two of them combined and that's about the size of this volume. It’s a monster, but the biggest complement that I can give it is that it was easy to read and didn’t feel like a chore. The other compliment I can give it, is that I wanted to pick up the second volume instantly and read it as well and that's a lot of reading.
There are some familiar elements to this story. Things that you’ll kind of brush off as not being new or that unique, which is fine because it’s the entire product that stands out as being fantastic. But even with those familiar elements this really does show just how far behind American comics are because there’s nothing this damn good being published on the market. If you love comics then you owe it to yourself to read Prison School, it’s not just manga or just a comic it’s masterful storytelling in a medium that frankly needs more like this. Even if it’s just a fraction of this.
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Prison School – Vol. 1 Creator: Akira Hiramoto Publisher: Yen Press Price: $20.00 Release Date: 7/21/16 Format: TPB; Print/Digital