I am continuing my week of Dowman with The Voynich Hotel. The Voynich Hotel (ヴォイニッチホテル) is a manga series by Dowman Sayman (道満晴明, Douman Seiman). The title is probably a reference to the Voynich manuscript, an indecipherable ancient book filled with a language of unknown origin. Unlike that manuscript, this manga can be comprehended, but it’s definitely strange. See, The Voynich Hotel is about…hm, well, a hotel?
Alright, I gotta be honest: I feel like going over this series is going to be hard, so I’ll say immediately my condensed opinions: great series, one of my favorite manga of all time, my favorite Dowman Sayman manga, isn’t for everyone due to some questionable content. See, this series is very odd. When I was re-reading it as I do for series I review I went in with a solid idea of what the series was about, but as I read it I found I wasn’t quite correct and I struggled to think what there was to be understood, if anything. If I really wanted to simplify it I would say The Voynich Hotel is about a tropical island that’s allegedly a tourism destination, but is actually a complete shithole ravaged by war and steeped in bleak, bloody history. Naturally, it is a den of criminals. There is a hotel on it, called the Voynich Hotel, and some stuff happens in it. The hotel is owned by the most normal person in the series, a man in a luchador mask, and is staffed by two maids and one suicidal cook. Almost nobody comes here, except for during tourist season. The island is entirely wrapped up in rumors and legends, many of which are doubted but most of which are true. There is magic, there are ghosts, and there are marvels of science. If you wanted to, you could call it a love story.
I do not want to make it sound like The Voynich Hotel is really confusing or random, because it’s not. There are some things that happen in it that you definitely have to think over, but it’s not as if this is some insane fever dream of a manga. What I’m getting at is that, after thinking over it for a while, I came to the conclusion that The Voynich Hotel isn’t about anything. I thought it was about rumors and secrets, but these things are merely aspects of the setting — it’s not really like you could say the idea of “rumor” is explored. Maybe it’s about love? Well, there are many romantic relationships and love connections in the series, and the “core” is a romance, but it doesn’t feel like Dowman’s Nickelodeon where Dowman seemed to wonder about the idea of love completely. Instead, it just so happens that people in the setting love and/or make love with one another. Most chapters aren’t really about such things, either, and are instead about…just stuff that happens around the island, really.
So basically, The Voynich Hotel is a look at a strange setting and the characters that inhabit it. There isn’t really a plot and there really isn’t a direction. Sure, things are followed up on that are brought up early but these things aren’t the usual focus of chapters. The author doesn’t seem to have a message to convey through his manga, and arguably no story to tell with it either. At the least, no ordinary story with a familiar flow of events that ends in a way that’s satisfying. In fact, The Voynich Hotel ends on a bad joke! It will probably make you laugh, yes, but it’s not like this is a gag manga! Reading this manga is basically like an observation of lives with occasional narration given to you. Every chapter is referred to by “day…” or “days…” (i.e. 1 DAY…, 5 DAYs…) and that feels appropriate. Reading the series is reminiscent of days passing by.
Now, a series doesn’t need “a message”. It doesn’t need a “theme”. But, jeez, if it’s not a raw comedy or a slice of life series then not having a standard sort of story is weird! Like I said, it makes this hard to go over. I guess it has arcs. There are at least two arcs that happen late in the series. However, most of the manga just floats between situations and characters that may or may not be connected to one another. That would make it a slice of life, but there’s good reason you won’t see it labeled as such on any site. What I am taking far too long to say is that The Voynich Hotel sure is damn unique! I will now proceed to try giving you an impression of it without rambling.
The manga begins with the protagonist, Kuzuki Taizou, arriving at the titular Voynich Hotel. He’s exhausted and woozy and there’s no one at the reception desk. He collapses on a couch and seems to have a hallucination of his grandmother, who he then has a short conversation with. She tells him he falls in love too easily, and that he shouldn’t do so during his stay. He says he won’t, then wakes up in a pretty-looking maid’s lap. He doesn’t fall for her, just gets up in surprise. Another maid (who seems to be a child) enters the lobby and gets him his key. He heads up in the elevator.
If the first maid is to be believed, he’s been bitten by a strange fly. Seems the bite could be fatal. He passes out again, but not before seeing something odd: the maid has stitches all around her neck.
After that the chapter ends, and with the next chapter the series really begins in earnest, starting with a pair of drug dealers trading stories in an abandoned amusement park on an old Ferris wheel. With my first paragraphs included, that about does it for the setup, so now let’s introduce the characters a little better. I’ll be “revealing” some things about some characters that aren’t immediately obvious, but they’re things you learn very, very quickly.
Taizou seems like an average guy when we meet him — like maybe he’s a Japanese salaryman who chose an odd place for a vacation — but in actuality he’s an ex-yakuza (basically Japanese mafia) on the run from his “family” after stealing a great deal of money from them. He’s hiding out on Blefuscu to keep a low profile. His tastes are a bit curious, as he seems to be a strong romantic (like his grandmother suggested), and that leads to some interesting choices in his overall love life. He has a low opinion of himself, and yakuza overall, although he can display compassion and heroism. He starts off rather perturbed by the island’s strangeness, but eventually begins to acclimate well, making him a nice stand-in for the reader. He falls in love with the maid who looks like a child, Elena.
So here’s the first place you might want to turn back at, though I implore you to reconsider. Though Elena is definitely older than she looks, she still looks like a kid. It’s no secret, since they make it clear that even other characters perceive her that way as soon as she’s introduced. She looks about eleven years old, fourteen if you’re being very generous. She is an immortal who has been around for over 1000 years at least. While it’s never clear just how old she is, it doesn’t take long before it’s apparent that she’s been alive for quite a while. This trope might bother you, but stay with me.
Elena is a witch, one of three who have become legend on the island (a reader has informed me these three witches are based off the fairly old Three Mothers horror films by Italian director Dario Argento; of course they are). Her sisters are no longer with her, and now she’s working at this hotel for some reason as a maid. Her status as a witch is a “secret” but everyone knows the Voynich Hotel is home to a maid that’s a witch. She is missing an eye from suffering a wound long ago, and currently wears one made of glass (or an eyepatch, on occasion). She stopped aging when she was very young, and is therefore stuck in a rather immature body. Her mind, however, is not immature.
Ordinarily Elena is a very pleasant person. She’s almost motherly, actually, when she’s not squealing over things from Japan (she’s a weeaboo/Japanophile). She can get very excitable and act girlish, particularly after she falls for Taizou, but it’s very obvious that the apparent age of her body is not her true age: Elena is an adult. She’s got quite the attitude concerning a number of pet peeves, and can be not only violent but murderous if pushed (often in a subdued, quiet way, which is rather terrifying). As a witch, she is not some cutesy anime version of a popular Western archetype, but actually a powerful, dangerous, and surprisingly wicked being with a fondness for bones. Elena alone is a huge appeal of the manga for me, since I find her incredibly entertaining and interesting. Furthermore her relationship with Taizou is both very cute and very curious. After all, the hotel has had many guests and Elena has lived for many years, yet Taizou is the first person she’s ever fallen in love with. She has pretty good reason, too.
She rooms at the hotel with Beluna, the stitched maid, and the two of them handle everything but cooking and management for their boss.
This woman, Amelia, handles the food but also wants to kill herself. The only problem is, she wants someone to go with her, and will even poison hotel meals to that end (an effort thankfully blocked by Elena).
This man, Kandre Umeda, is the hotel’s owner. A half-Japanese ex-luchador, he is a simple and kind man who is honestly very normal (no sarcasm). He is the object of Amelia’s yandere (simply put, crazy love) affections.
And last but not least for staff of the Voynich Hotel is Beluna, pictured above wandering toward the edge of the panel.
Beluna is seemingly emotionless, kind of odd, and very frank. She is also obviously some sort of Frankenstein creation. She has a close relationship to Elena and refers to her as her master. Although she’s rather dull and has a habit of complying with requests, she isn’t like a robot or something. She’s apparently just low on emotion; there are times she can smile or get annoyed. She possesses a will of her own despite declaring someone her “master”, and will refuse some requests made to her outright. She also seems to enjoy teasing Elena, though she is generally very kind. A deadpan character with a good heart, Beluna feels like a perfect fit for The Voynich Hotel.
The hotel houses a handful of guests aside from Taizou who all get focused on quite a bit should they ever get a chapter dedicated to them. There’s a manga artist, another Japanese man, and a trio of drug dealers to begin with. There are a few more that come in later, and some are more bizarre than others. I won’t really focus on them, though, because I would say this series is more concerned with the island the hotel stands on than the hotel itself.
Five major characters of The Voynich Hotel are actual kids — citizens of the island. They call themselves the Sleuth Brigade and investigate mysteries on the island, cutely referring to one another by codenames (except for one of them). This is a messed up island, however, so most of these kids are messed up too.
Their leader, Leader, is a scarred boy with questionable morals and a devil-may-care attitude. He can be boyish and cute, but seems to try to be seen as mature. He has a hatred for Japanese people, who apparently used and abused his island, and now come here as tourists. He’s protective of his friends and the Sleuth Brigade’s clients, but is willing to turn a blind eye to plenty of the dark secrets of the island, content with merely knowing the truth of them. He’s admired by Vixen, the girl with twin tails, who claims to be “the sexy one” in the group although it’s quite clearly a front for a sensitive and very caring heart. He’s also admired by Alice, the youngest girl who wears a strange bunny mask. She doesn’t have a codename, and seems incredibly innocent in spite of all the horrible things that exist in the place she lives. Alice is adorable, and her presence in this manga is most welcome.
Leader’s best friend is the thick boy at the back of the pack, Fatty, who just likes to eat. Last there is Doctor, a smart wheelchair-bound kid who knows about plenty of rumors on the island. The brigade’s latest big case is to catch a vicious serial killer with a high kill-count and difficult-to-read motivations.
This is the killer:
She immediately reveals herself after being introduced, but Taizou doesn’t know who “Snark” is supposed to be.
The investigation into this “Snark” is mainly being done by the island’s police force, with Officer Olga (pictured in the page depicting the crime scene) taking charge of the case. She’s no nonsense, and her new partner on the Snark case is full nonsense.
And that about does it for characters. There are a startling number of assassins that come to the island for various reasons, too, so between them, the serial killer, and the witch you can expect “death” to be a factor in The Voynich Hotel. And now that characters are over with, let’s discuss some of the other factors.
I was going to tag this manga as “surreal” but in spite of all the weird things that go on, it doesn’t feel that way. Actually, The Voynich Hotel feels pretty grounded and relaxed. Things that would be strange to anyone are generally considered strange, and even those who have been around for quite a while can be thrown off by this or that oddity. Many mysteries are resolved from the reader’s perspective soon as they come up, yet details may take some time to reveal themselves, making the series itself qualify as a mystery. There’s something like a sense of dread throughout the manga for sure, but most of the time the series is incredibly lighthearted even in the face of death. It also has a habit of surprising you by tugging at your heartstrings. In fact, there are a few moments in The Voynich Hotel that I would call powerful. Still, all in all, it seems that attempts for laughs are the most common thing you’ll find in the series. Dowman Sayman’s odd brand of humor is…hm, running at about 60-80% capacity here. You’ve got your simple and dumb jokes, straight up good jokes, your odd reference humor, weird “did you know?” spiels, funny scenes, and a number of crude and sexual gags (some explicit). The series definitely made me laugh at every one of its jokes and silly scenes, but it might not work for you.
I hope I was able to give this manga a fair assessment. To be honest, I worry that I didn’t get across everything I wanted to say. Although this series is a short one ending at three volumes, sixty-eight chapters, with most chapters only being six pages long, a lot happens in it and there’s quite a bit to talk about. And, as I spent so long saying at the start of this review, since it’s so unique in execution it’s difficult to sum up. What I really want you to know is that I believe this series is fantastic. When I was done with The Voynich Hotel, I felt warm and fuzzy all over. I didn’t quite feel “satisfied”, as there was something I was expecting based on various hints throughout the series which did not come to pass in the end (honestly, it felt like Dowman knew that I knew that he was dropping hints, so he pulled the rug out from under anyone who wanted this thing to happen), but I still felt good: like time spent with this hotel was time well spent. This series has a high recommendation from me. I think Dowman Sayman did an excellent job with it, though it took him a dog’s age to finish. I reread it pretty frequently, and that’s a good sign. This is some good stuff right here.
The final Dowman Sayman manga I’ll be discussing this week is more “not for everyone” than the others by a country mile. Look forward to it! In the meantime, thanks for reading.
Practically all of the works of Dowman Sayman you can find translated into English are done over at thetsuuyaku (site NSFW). Seems to be a big fan.