Ran Uruma, a fourth-grader, lives with her teenage brother Jin and their father in their cluttered house. Ran dreams of following in her mother’s footsteps, which is no small dream, because Ran’s mother Shizuka is a powerful sorceress … so powerful that when she visits the neighborhood, winter changes to spring, plants and animals appear out of nowhere, and giant desserts cover whole houses in ice cream. Sadly for Ran, Shizuka must spend most of her time away from home, in a distant village of sorcerers where life goes on as it did in Japan’s Middle Ages.
Luckily Ran has her own magic powers: when she sleeps, her dreams affect reality, and when she puts on her “adult shoes” she transforms from a child into an adult woman. “Quit treating me like a kid!” she tells her overprotective big brother, and she puts on her shoes and runs away from home, hoping that her mom will teach her real magic. After several misadventures, Ran ends up in the garden penthouse of Otaro, a fabulously wealthy (and handsome) eccentric. Unaware that Ran has the soul of a 10-year-old, Otaro becomes fascinated by his beautiful visitor. When she leaves, he goes looking for her, following her on a Cinderella quest into the secret world of magic.
The first thing that jumps out about Ran and the Gray World is the art: Akie Irie’s character designs suggest old-fashioned shojo manga, all exquisite eyelashes and finely sculpted hands and long, flowing hair. The backgrounds are excellent as well, evoking fantasy with ornate detail and realism in a mirror image of the way CLAMP’s xxxHolic created a similar mood with minimalism. Irie handles the 13 going on 30 age-shifting premise as tastefully as anyone could, avoiding fanservice and surrounding Ran with supportive family and friends (including well-meaning teachers wondering just what’s up with this strange little girl’s home life).
The pacing is slow, and suggestions of a darker fantasy plot are left tantalizingly unresolved in Volume 1 (just what is the “Gray World”, and what is the weighty task that keeps Shizuka away from her family?). But patient readers will be glad to give Irie time to cast her spell, a story of magic intruding on everyday Japanese life, with whimsy, hints of sadness, beautiful art, and a sympathetic main character. Recommended.
story and art: Aki Irie