Even though he has international influences that include a third-century Bishop from Turkey and European gift-giving traditions, I think it's fair to say that the modern version of Santa Claus is about as American as Coca-Cola. With as big a Santa Claus fan as I am, though, I'm always interested in seeing how other countries interpret the jollly old elf. That's what led me to Sakura Tsukuba's Santa-themed romance comic, Sweet Rein, and I think it's safe to say that it might just be the single weirdest Christmas comic I've ever read.

If nothing else, I don't think I've ever read another story that was built around the idea of Santa and a reindeer falling in love through BDSM (Bondage, Deer and Santa Magic), and that's before you get to the part where they're both actually wide-eyed teenagers. Yes, even the reindeer. Especially the reindeer.



Originally published in 2005, there are three volumes of Sweet Rein available digitally from Viz, and while I've only read the first one, you can believe that I'm going to head back for the other two as soon as I can. I have so many unanswered questions, and they start with trying to figure out just how Santa Claus works in this universe.

As near as I can figure, the basics go like this: Instead of there being just one immortal Santa Claus who lives at the North Pole making toys for elves, there are a bunch of Santas. The thing is, they don't actually know they're Santas until they're activated, Manchurian Candidate style, by running into their reindeer. The reindeer, incidentally, know exactly who they are, and are only actual reindeer sometimes. When they're not pulling the sleigh, they're just regular people, albeit ones with magical powers and the ability to fly.



Oh, and reindeerhood seems to be passed down through families, but from what I can tell, Santa-ness is random. And even stranger, the Santas and reindeer aren't assigned to each other or anything, and apparently just live their own lives until they eventually run into each other and, presumably, fall in love.



So here's where it gets into bondage territory: When a Santa meets their reindeer, they are instantly connected by an actual, physical rein --- as in, a leather strap that connects the Santa's wrist to the reindeer's neck. It's invisible to everyone but the Santa and the reindeer, and while it's there, the reindeer must obey any and all of the Santa's commands, including literally flying to the South Pole should the Santa command them to "go to the ends of the Earth."

The only way to free the reindeer from this bondage is, and I think we all saw this coming, by making out with them.



As though the whole thing is an attempt to check off as many boxes on a list of manga stereotypes, our Santa is a 17 year-old schoolgirl named Kurumi who has never been kissed and whose unseen father is too busy with his job in the business industry to spend time with her, even at Christmas. The reindeer, who meets her on the street and immediately falls in love, is Kaito, a handsome but somewhat dimwitted shapeshifter who who is all about warm, gentle hugs and being given irrefutable orders by his master.



Dude is into it. And good for him.

Anyway, for a story about Santa falling in love with her extremely obedient reindeer, there's not a whole lot of the story that actually takes place at Christmas, at least in this first volume. In the first story, Kurumi's first time as Santa goes off without a hitch as she pretty easily covers her route, and after that, we jump to summertime and bikinis. There's one brief appearance by Kaito's equally handsome grandfather, who is also a reindeer and is also also a ghost, who is able to appear, converse, and pull a sleigh full of presents without any trouble, but other than the questions that it raises about the nature of death in the world of Sweet Rein, it's not actually that remarkable.

Where things get really weird is in the story where Kurumi meets a small child whose takes the following actions, in this order:

  1. Flips up Kurumi's skirt so that he can get a good look at (and comment on) her underwear.
  2. Fake a coughing fit so that he can grope her when she tries to stop him from falling over.
  3. Inform her that he is dying of cancer and that his only wish is to live long enough to send a Christmas card to the girl that he's in love with, but to whom he never confessed his love, as he did not want to put her through the pain of watching him die.

It's a pretty weird sequence of events, but when he actually starts dying, Kurumi and Kaito pray to God --- I should have probably mentioned that the Santas apparently report directly to God Himself, who granted the original Santa a magic shapeshifting reindeer companion --- who grants them the ability to completely cure his cancer with the power of a Christmas present.



It is amazing. And Sweet Rein doesn't stop there, either. The first volume doesn't really have much in the way of conflict --- Kaito is immediately in love with Kurumi and Kurumi pretty quickly gets on board with this whole bizarre situation with only a pretty cursory question of whether she'll eventually return his affection --- but the description for the second book includes the line about a "Dark Santa" who shows up and sets about trying to destroy their relationship. If I wasn't already in the tank for a romance between Cute Santa and Bishounen Reindeer, then that would definitely be the thing that brought me back for more.

Oh, and on the off chance that you didn't think this story was weird enough, the last quarter of the book is devoted to a completely unrelated story about a sexy vampire who finds out he's a single dad.



Seriously: This might actually be my new favorite comic.