If you ever read Aria by Kozue Amano and thought, “Neo-Venezia is beautiful, but I wish it had an element of supernatural existential horror and maybe some catboys,” you don't even need to read further. Go straight to your preferred book retailer and buy a copy of Rozi in the Labyrinth, because that's exactly what this series is.
For those of you who are still here, allow me to explain further. Rozi in the Labyrinth by Shiya Totsuki is a beautifully-drawn series set in a Labyrinth, a liminal space that lost humans may find themselves in, and become doomed to wander as their bodies and senses of self become increasingly warped and monstrous. The souls there, try as they might to make a life for themselves, long for their old worlds and forms.
But Rozi is different. This small child has no memory of another world or another life, so she considers the Labyrinth her home. She feels no fear or sadness, only curiosity and wonder. She's outgoing and has a loving family in Chemin, Kay, and Mur, all of whom adore and protect her. All-in-all, she thoroughly enjoys her life in the Labyrinth.
She is also completely saccharine. Rozi is one of those fictional children who have no real negative traits, other than a penchant for wandering into danger that her guardian helps her out of. I, a person who works with children, have zero patience for this kind of character. They're boring compared to their real-life counterparts, who are all interesting and fully-realized human beings, while Rozi is just kind of there for things to happen around while she says and does cute things. It doesn't help that she's designed with the proportions of an infant.
Funnily enough, other than the character it was named after, Rozi in the Labyrinth is a very strong manga. Although Totsuki only mentions going to “a certain city in Europe” in their author's notes, it's pretty clearly Venice, the European city most famous for its stone architecture and winding alleyways and bridges. It really is a city that feels like there's a supernatural encounter waiting to happen around every corner, filled with old-world magic, and it comes beautifully to life here. The world is filled with crumbling stone walls and steps, strange shops, and mysterious marketplaces. It is, quite literally, a setting you could get lost in, and the things that happen around Rozi are far more interesting than the girl herself.
Most of the primary and secondary cast draws on archetypes as well, although none of them are nearly so grating. Kay is tiny, but has the mannerisms and speech patterns of a gruff old man; Chemin is polite but mysterious; Mur is timid despite his large frame. They're well-trodden ground but, like the world they live in, there are a few twists and hints to keep them from feeling too familiar. Chemin has taken on something of a paternal role (though Kay's presence keeps this from really being a single dad manga) and is fiercely protective of the family he's created. He's also an individual of some influence, as he once served the Black Queen.
Totsuki does a wonderful job structuring the worldbuilding and greater plot within this mostly-episodic volume, offering exposition only when it's immediately relevant through relatively natural dialogue and character moments, with the occasional judicious use of flashback. There is a sense of liminality to the Labyrinth, a kind of between-ness, where the rules of reality don't fully apply but still inform who and what everything is. Change is ever-present, and yet, its denizens can never fully move on from their old selves; instead, they become a distorted and exaggerated version of what they once were. Presented this way, the mysteries the story sets up are positively tantalizing.
To be clear, the story so far is nothing but mysteries. Questions have been asked, but nothing answered. Who is Chemin, and how did he come to be such a powerful figure in this world? How did a small child like Rozi end up there? In a world like this, people must live according to their natures, but what exactly does this mean?
Plus, they're just really pretty. Catboys seem to be in these days, and Rozi in the Labyrinth definitely capitalizes on that. Chemin is the only real catboy, with slit-pupiled emerald green eyes, black ears sprouting from his black hair, and a tail emerging from his butler-esque suit. Mur isn't strictly one himself, but he does wear a hoodie with cat ears on it, so he's still drawing on the aesthetic. To sum it up, they are precision-targeted to appeal to fans with certain predilections.
If you're still uncertain about whether or not to give Rozi in the Labyrinth a try, consider this: it just finished serialization in Japan after running for just two years. Thus, it won't be a big financial or time commitment to collect the series, nor has it had a chance to stagnate and grow dull. I don't know where the story goes or if it will continue in a direction that will satisfy me, but it may well be worth exploring.