Delightful? Possibly. Depraved? Definitely!
Franken Fran (by Katsuhisa Kigitsu) tells the twisted story of Fran Madaraki, the only “daughter” of the mad Dr. Madaraki, who recently went missing. Thankfully, the good doc taught Fran almost everything he knew, so she has been carrying on in his stead by performing medical miracles for the highest bidder or whoever captures her sympathy. However, Fran’s sympathy should be regarded in the same light as a tiger’s attention, as it’s by no means always a good thing. Fran’s upbringing with the doctor has left her a little warped, and her idea of a happy ending and the ideas of her patients are often worlds apart.
The first thing to understand about Franken Fran is that it is at its core a collection of horror tales. I can see where the suggestive-looking cover or Fran’s whimsical, funny personality could mislead you, but don’t be fooled into thinking you’re purchasing light fare. This manga comes from an incredibly dark moral place where right and wrong have precious little bearing on the outcome. Yes, Fran has a tendency to always punish the guilty, but she has an equally strong record of perpetrating grotesque surgeries and atrocities on the innocent and the ethically neutral who have the misfortune to fall under her care. This book does contain a few genuinely happy endings, but even in those, there is usually some instance of stomach-churning collateral damage or a total mind-screw of a final twist.
Truly, the only “moral” to be found in Franken Fran is that you should never intentionally seek help from Fran… like, ever. I watch a lot of horror movies and am hard to shock, but after marathoning the 380 pages of utter depravity contained in this two-volume omnibus, I felt morally exhausted. I felt like I needed to put everything else aside and read my Bible for a while. For that reason alone, setting aside this series’ absolutely sick artwork, bizarre plot lines, or gobs of gratuitous gore, I have to warn you that this series is the definition of an acquired taste.
With all these warnings out of the way, I can now breathe a little and say that this manga is absolutely stunning and easily my favorite manga release this year. Why? Above all else, the quality of the writing. The sheer originality of some of these stories is breathtaking, especially when it comes to Fran’s radical medical solutions, and some of the final twists take a moment to wrap your head around. It also bases its half-baked ideas on real science; among other things, this volume finally helped me “get” stem cells.
Furthermore, Fran herself is quite an interesting character. Her actions are morally repugnant at times, but there’s almost always solid logic behind them, as well as a genuine desire to do the right thing. She truly wants to help people and puts everything she has into doing that. The problem is that her “unique” upbringing has warped her notion of what an acceptable outcome should look like – you just have to take her as she is and hope she grows in understanding as the series progresses. Seven Seas’ choice to make Fran slur or stretch her words sometimes was a cute touch that helped me “hear” the character a little better, and it went right along with her uncoordinated wobble when she isn’t focused.
The excellent writing is served and complimented by powerful, visceral artwork. We have character models with a variety of ages, backgrounds, and even nationalities, and the backgrounds are straight out of a Hammer horror film. The gold point is in Fran’s grotesque experiments, which literally have to be seen to be believed, but the author does just as impressive work with the finished monsters. I was especially struck by the hulking lab techs who always seem to appear out of nowhere whenever Fran goes into serious mode when it comes to surgery – the brute force they convey gives many of the surprise procedures the desperate helplessness of a rape scene. The change that comes over Fran herself at these moments, transitioning from staggering half-loopiness to frightening intensity, was also perfect.
Besides the flat-out moral discomfort you get from Fran, really the only negative thing I have to say about the book at all is that the translation sometimes got muddy in the most unfortunate places. It always sounded natural (so, great localization), but the meaning was occasionally unclear, which became a real problem at certain twist endings. I had to re-read the ends to a few chapters and compare Seven Seas’ translation to some online fanslations to make sure I understood what was going on. There might have been some ambiguity in the Japanese as well, I guess, but I hope this will be less of a problem in future volumes.
So, that’s Franken Fran, warts and all. Because this manga is so nasty and so much of a head trip, I’m going to take the unusual step of not recommending it outright despite personally loving it. If you’re unsure, you’ll really just need to read a few pages or take the plunge to purchase it to see what you think. What I can and will say, however, is that this is one of the best-produced, original, and daring manga I have ever read. You can’t beat it for sheer nerve – which makes sense. Fran probably has a lot of sheer nerves lying around in her basement…