An unremarkable middle-schooler gets more than he bargained for when a homeless man burns a tattoo giving him secret powers into his palm. With a whole host of super-powered foes coming after him, Seiji will have to unlock his full potential if he wants to survive.

Seiji is your average middle-schooler - he goes to school, he goes to the dojo, and he hangs out with his childhood friend Touka. However, what sets Seiji apart is that he is a do-gooder through and through, and can’t resist trying to save the weak. This tendency comes back to bite him after he saves a homeless man from being beaten up and gets a tattoo on his hand in exchange. It turns out that this tattoo is the product of a dangerous arms-race between America and the kingdom of Serinistan, putting Seiji on the radar of Bluesy Fleusy, the American operative tasked retrieving the tattoos spread around the world. With his new powers in tow, Seiji works with Bluesy against the Serinistanians determined to take the tattoos for themselves.

Taboo Tattoo is targeted towards fans who like your typical action / coming of age stories, but veers harder towards the seinen demographic in terms of its explicitness.

You’ve heard this set-up before: average boy with a sense for justice gets miraculous powers, becoming the target and companion of a skilled female assassin trying to keep evil-doers from getting to him first. This has been done countless times with varying degrees of success, but sadly Taboo Tattoo is likely the most uninspired attempt I’ve seen at adapting this well-worn premise. Soulless isn’t a word that I particularly enjoy throwing around, but that description is wholly appropriate for Taboo Tattoo’s first volume, which combines a thoroughly unimaginative and cliche story with questionable art, lifeless characters, and some pointlessly pandery fanservice to create a whole that is very difficult to recommend in any significant way.

To be quite honest, Taboo Tattoo’s story is more or less the bland distillation of a number of overused shonen action tropes in the most cookie-cutter arrangement possible. Tropes are not necessarily a bad thing, and series such as My Hero Academia work precisely because it provides imaginative new spins on common themes to create something new. Sadly, Seiji’s rather rote story in becoming embroiled in a secret arms race between America and Serinistan does none of that, and this volume proceeds exactly as one would expect as Seiji gets his powers, gets attacked by the good guys, tries to master his powers, and then along with his childhood friend gets attacked by the bad guys. The difference between this series and its superior contemporaries is that aren’t any surprises or a redeeming backstory to be found here as the story plugs along, and this lack of any reason whatsoever to become invested in this plot made for a tiring read. There is admittedly a bit of decent action to be found here, but I can’t say that it is worth the slog of going through the plot to get to it because there are other series that have comparable action sequences with far superior plots to keep things interesting.

The general lifelessness of Taboo Tattoo’s plot extends to its characters, who are unremarkable in the worst sense of the word. They all fit in to one trope or another - from the aforementioned justice-seeking boy and dangerous assassin-girl, to the pining childhood friend and stable of brainless superpower enemies - Taboo Tattoo seemingly runs the entire gamut of characters that are typical of these stories. Again, this isn’t a bad thing in itself, but none of the characters display any interesting motivations or personality traits to ground the story.

Seiji’s motivations are more or less non-existent aside from an obligatory flash-back to memories of his dad being the root of his desire for justice. This really ends up being the thinnest of possible characterizations that could have been give for him, and the consequence is his character arc ends up being quite bland just like the rest of the characters who don’t end up faring much better. Although Bluesy in particular shows the most depth in terms of actually having a personality, I never got the sense that this stemmed from her being developed as a character. Instead, it seemed like this came from her needing to act in line with the “tough-assassin girl with a secretly soft heart” class of character to fulfill yet another preordained character role, and this complaint could easy be extended to Touka in her role as the obligatory childhood friend. Put simply, the characters of Taboo Tattoo are of little consequence to the story as it rumbles on in spite of them, and those looking for depth in this department should look elsewhere.

Perhaps the sole part of this volume that has some bright spots to it is the art, but I can’t say I was really impressed by much of it. Creator Shinjiro’s art style comes off with a certain unrefined roughness, and this is especially apparent in some of the stationary scenes in terms of the flatness with which the characters’ faces are drawn. The action scenes fare better thanks to the sense of impact that Shinjiro is able to give to the various superpowered kicks and punches put on display. The panels were laid out cleanly for the most part, and I didn’t have much trouble tracking the action thankfully. However, to my disappointment there were a number of moments where otherwise perfectly good full-page spreads were unnecessary obstructed thanks to the page guttering in a way that was completely avoidable with a little bit better positioning on the page. Taboo Tattoo is certainly not a looker by any means, but there are a few nicer moments mixed in among the bad.

Taboo Tattoo also has a few other unsavoury elements to it that bear pointing out. The first is the pointless fanservice dispersed throughout the volume which clashed with the otherwise serious and mature vibe that the series is thoroughly committed to creating. This would be excusable if it had some purpose, but it was disconcerting to see the series break tone so easily to slip in a few pandery moments before expecting the reader to buy back into the supposed seriousness of the story immediately afterwards. This leads into my second criticism, which is that the series tries way too hard to get across its edginess. This is encapsulated by a scene later in the volume where a villain tells a character about his pedophilic fascination with her before stating “I’ll rape you, pass you around so my friends can have a go, tie you up, torture you, stuff your every hole with shit, sew them shut, then strangle you”. I mean, I know he’s supposed to be a villain, but that came straight out of the blue for shock value to make the series seem darker. That was really unnecessary in that didn’t add a thing to the plot or the tone, and felt like an attempt to compensate for poor writing more than anything else.

If you’re coming to the end of this review wondering if I’d recommend that you buy this manga, the answer is almost unequivocally no. The plot is of the type seen in many, many other series with significantly more success, and combined with boring characters and a non-existent setting, there is little draw that I can see here even for fans looking for a simple action series. The tonal issues with the fanservice and the pointless edginess I identified also detracted from the experience, and barring the plot getting moving in a major way in the second volume I really can’t recommend this series in good faith.

What do our scores mean?

Taboo Tattoo Vol. 1 was published by Yen Press on January 26th, 2016 and translated by Christine Dashiell. Authored by Shinjiro, the series is currently ongoing in Media Factory’s Monthly Comic Alive magazine. Volume 2 is scheduled to be released in English on April 26th, 2016. An anime adaption by J.C. Staff will be airing in July 2016.

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