The Emperor and I

The Emperor and I reads like a Sunday comic strip: it has a faintly absurd premise that’s easy to grasp, a small cast of characters, and a well-honed repertoire of jokes that it trots out with clockwork precision.

The story begins with Kaho, an ordinary teenage girl, discovering an extraordinary thing in the refrigerator: a penguin. Without a second thought, she coaxes him out of the crisper drawer, feeds him a snack, and persuades her mom to let him stay. Emperor turns out to be less a pet than a weird houseguest, however, doggedly pursuing penguin behaviors — carrying eggs on his feet, sliding across the floor on his belly — while assiduously ignoring his human companions.

What gives the series its odd comic energy is the artist’s fierce commitment to depicting Emperor as a wild animal. Emperor doesn’t talk or have a winsome face with big, soulful eyes; he’s a silent, hulking presence who molts and sleeps standing up. The gulf between Emperor and his human hosts is further underscored by the full-color artwork. As Mato draws him, Emperor looks like an illustration from a biology textbook, with every patch of orange and feather rendered in meticulous detail. By contrast, Kaho and her family look like stock characters from a Shonen Sunday manga; you’d be forgiven for thinking they were part of Kagome Higurashi’s extended clan. Color also enables Mato to conceal Emperor in plain sight so that he’s visible to the reader but plausibly hidden from the characters, a gimmick that proves essential to one of the series’ better running gags: Emperor’s talent for disappearing inside Kaho’s very small house. (That’s no small feat, considering he stands four feet tall and reeks of mackerel.)

Perhaps the best thing about The Emperor and I is that it wears its conceit lightly. We learn a lot about penguin behavior and anatomy over the course of the series, but other critical details are left to the readers’ imagination. Although Kaho and her family acknowledge the bizarreness of their situation — remember, they found a penguin in the crisper drawer — none of them seem particularly bothered by it, or curious to discover how Emperor arrived there. By keeping the focus on Emperor’s natural avian behaviors, Mato mines a richer comic vein of material, highlighting the incongruity between the setting and Emperor’s attempts to carry on as if he were still living in Antarctica.

Like any Sunday strip, The Emperor and I is best in small doses, as the “Where’s Emperor?” jokes grow tiresome when read in rapid succession. Consumed in weekly doses of three to nine pages, however, The Emperor and I works well; the routine jokes have a pleasantly familiar ring that brings the genuinely novel gags into sharper relief. You won’t forget the silent encounter between Emperor and a neighborhood cat, or Kaho’s frantic efforts to turn her bathtub into a salt-water pool, even if the comic bits that surround these sequences are pat.

How to read The Emperor and IVIZ is serializing this manga on its website, making a new chapter available every week. Access is free, though expect to see at least one or two pop-up ads for VIZ’s digital edition of Weekly Shonen Jump.


7 thoughts on “The Emperor and I”

  1. Aaron says:

    I was and huge Penguin nerd in grade school so this sounds like it would be right up my ally too bad this digital I can’t really read Manga in a digital format my eyesight is too bad. Otherwise I would be on this like white on rice.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      It’s fun, but I can see why VIZ isn’t doing a print edition; I think it would be too expensive to publish it at a $10 or $12 price point, and I can’t see someone shelling out $20 for this. It’s a shame, though, as I think kind of manga might have crossover appeal for folks who like comic strips, but are under the impression that manga is just ninjas and big robots.

      1. Aaron says:

        Yeah not everything can get a print run which I understand and you do need to get some “new blood” in a particular subculture at times. I’m just thankful it’s people thinking it’s Giant Robots and ninjas these days. As opposed to the bad old days when stores were shelving La Blue Girl next to Studio Ghibli movies and all the unfortunate first impressions and implications that made.

        Although some things get a print run that you wouldn’t think would I mean never say never. Grimgar and Tanya got a print run so did Chi’s Sweet Home. Of course that’s Yen and Vertical, and Viz seems to be about the sure thing if they are going to put it out in physical copy. Although Promised Neverland is getting a physical release so who knows.

  2. Olivia says:

    This looks like a fun series to try, especially if it’s for free. I had no idea Viz was serializing things that way.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      Hi, Olivia! VIZ has a small number of digital-only titles that are being serialized for free on their website. The Emperor and I is one, but there’s also the The Boys Over Flowers sequel, élDLIVE, ROBOT X LASERBEAM, and a surprising number of titles I hadn’t heard of. You can view the archive here:

      For ongoing print series, the free chapters you see on this page are available for a limited time. The same goes for titles that are getting a digital-first launch, like The Promised Neverland; I don’t know how long those first chapters will be available after volume one arrives in stores on December 5th. It’s a shame that VIZ isn’t promoting these more aggressively on social media, because it seems like a good way to gauge reader interest in weirder stuff as well as a smart strategy for audience-building.

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