Ever since I first saw Tegami Bachi in the pages of my Monthly Shonen Jump Magazine, I was fascinated by its art direction and character design. I had never seen a manga that looked like it before; a series filled with hauntingly beautiful landscapes, intricate costuming, and bustling steampunk cities. It was also an enthralling fantasy series, much different from the samurai stories I grew up with. Reading Tegami Bachi was like entering a different realm and, at fifteen, I was wide-eyed, curious and ready for an adventure.
But just as I was getting into it, Monthly Shonen Jump stopped publishing in America, leaving me to wait for the release of individual volumes. Before I left for college, I managed to get the first twelve even though they was hard to find due to miniscule popularity. It’s even harder to find nowadays since it’s mostly out of print. But recently there was a sale and I managed to get the rest of the series for a reasonable price. What an impulse buy! So this is half a Reread Diary and half a general review, half a well-known story and half an all-new adventure, and I’m so happy to share it with you.
This part of the post is spoiler-free!
When Lag Seeing’s mother is abducted, young Lag finds himself traveling with Gauche Suede, a government postal man who is “shipping” him to the destination written on the packing slip on his arm. In the short time Lag spends with him as his "letter," Lag is inspired by Gauche’s dedication to delivering letters, fragments of people’s hearts, across the country and dedicates himself to also becoming a postal man, known as a letter bee. Gauche also urges him to travel to the capital to try to learn the truth about his mother’s abduction. Five years later, Lag begins his quest to become a letter bee and faces obstacles, victories, and betrayals along the way. What starts as a small story about a boy’s dream quickly grows into uncovering a government scandal and saving the nation.
Watching the story expand was one of my favorite parts of reading it. I thought it was paced very well; the broadening scope of the story seamlessly transitioned from one level to the next. It was exhilarating to uncover the mystery and discover to horrors of what happens underneath the surface of the nation together with the cast . This is a development that happens later in the story so I did not experience it in my childhood read-through. For not being a fan of political intrigue, I thought it was well-executed and exciting to watch unravel.
I also grew to love the characters, including Lag and all is crying (it means something later on in the story). They all have believable motivations and are so beautifully drawn and emotive that it’s hard not to grow attached to them. Gauche is the character who kept me motivated to read the series— I will say he made fifteen-year-old Mary swoon a bit— but he is a very compelling character as well and he changes so much throughout the story. Another fan-favorite of mine is Zaji; the payoff for his character and his growth in the group is extremely satisfying.
Just off the art and characters alone, give this manga a try. It's an emotionally resonant series…which will lead us into spoilers…
This part of the post has spoilers! I’ll let you know when it’s over.
Tegami Bachi should be lauded for its incredible emotional maturity. It’s never cheap with its emotional punches. All its small episodic stories are beautiful vignettes depicting love, loss, and life. Each one has its own piece of heart— its own way to illustrate the human condition— and, even with the bombastic plot, it is these moments that are the core of the series at the end of the day.
The biggest standout for me is its dedication to the rules of its world. When someone loses their heart, they never get it back. And that is both devastating and oddly satisfying. Gauche never gets his heart back, Sunny will never be the same again…but like was Hiroyuki Asada said in his author’s notes, sometimes broken things cannot be fixed and we need to teach children that. I thought this would be your run-of-the-mill shonen. We have to save Gauche. But in a lot of ways, we never do and I think that’s awesome. Way to commit, Tegami Bachi. Way to make plot and characters choices that not a lot of manga like you would. Bravo.
The story is constantly about to fall off the rails, but never actually does until the very end. Everything eventually makes sense down the line or is easy enough to follow if you read carefully. Writing a government conspiracy and revolt can get a little crazy, but Asada does his best to keep it under wraps until the end.
Speaking of endings…it’s hard to end a story. Tegami Bachi struggles from this. It needed one more chapter, an epilogue, a broader goodbye, something so I didn’t feel robbed. But I did and that’s a bummer since I enjoyed the story so much. It didn’t ruin the experience for me, but after growing so attached to these characters, I wanted a better ending for them. I feel the same way I did at the end of Kingdom Hearts 3; I was in the weird oxymoronic state of satisfied but also disappointed.
End of spoilers
I was always intrigued with Tegami Bachi’s main premise: the power of letters and avenues to display affection and human emotion. In a lot of ways, it is an important predecessor to Violet Evergarden, which also has a steampunk setting and similar vehicle to move the plot. I personally love writing letters and postcards, maybe that’s why I connect so deeply with both these series. Nevertheless, Tegami Bachi is a great mix of action, adventure, heartache and heartbreak, just like I thought it would be when I was fifteen. Seeing little Lag cry is irritating but important; he shows the audience the power of the human heart in both strength and weakness, victory and defeat, and I will miss him and his little letter bee adventures. Although I would definitely change some things, I am grateful to Tegami Bachi for the fanciful ride, memorable cast, and constant reminder of the capacity of human emotion and resilience.
In all things, the heart must take precedence.
The heart rules over all things, and all things come from the heart.
Hiroyuki Asada, Tegami Bachi