Friday, August 16, 2013

Manga Review: Basara (volumes 1-5)

And I'm back folks, survived the almost 35,000 person crowd that was called Otakon and, well, that was certainly an experience! And expect a non-review post sometime in the next few days detailing a few changes around the blog since I'm moving again soon and moves always seem to leave this little blog a bit different.

But enough about that, let me talk to you about amazingly late 1900s shojo for a few minutes. For some reason from the late 70s, maybe mid 80s, through the very early 2000s there was a lot of shojo which I term "epic fantasy shojo" where the focus was on sweeping stories, large casts, and the coming of age of female characters in tense, often political, situations with a bit of romance tossed in that rarely was the main driver in the story. I'm not sure what happened to those stories, I've seen YA fiction in the US that seems more similar to that manga than most shojo manga I can find these days yet these titles are so unknown outside of the really devoted manga fandom that I doubt there's any connection. And of those titles this is one of the best known and if I hadn't been hearing about it for literally years I probably would have passed it up when I cam across it at the not-so-local library. I mean, look at that font, Basara are you SURE you're only as old as I am because that font looks like it came straight out of the 80s, a classic example of just because the calendar has entered a different decade doesn't necessarily mean that design sensibilities have caught up yet.

Basara (volumes 1 through 5) by Yumi Tamura

Summary: When Sarasa and her twin brother Tatara were born a prophet declared one of them to be "the child of destiny" and the village always assumed that this proclamation referred to Tatara. So did the king of their area of post-apocalyptic Japan, the Red King, it seems and Tatara is slain before he can even begin a rebellion to change Japan and so Sarasa takes up his name and begins her quest of revenge while discovering what a complicated place the world now is.

The Good: I make no secret that I adore stories with complex politics woven in and I love how the story has set up Sarasa/Tatara with their goal to take down some clearly corrupt kings, including the Red King, to make life better for all and yet has also shown her and the reader that the Red King's land is far better than the rest of Japan with the implication that the reason rebellions like the one her village planned have been crushed so brutally is because if they succeed the other kings will move in and make that area even worse. It's a world where there appear to be completely cruel and one hundred percent sadistic villains yet no true heroes or right thing to do, a fun set-up for readers who enjoy watching their protagonists fight for a good ending. The cast, much like the setting, expands rapidly but so far I haven't had any trouble telling the characters apart and the story remarkably enough even managed to sell me on it's star-crossed lovers aspect. Normally I become frustrated by that, especially when it's between two characters who are sworn enemies as is the case here, but the way that Sarasa and Shuri's relationship begins and grows feels as natural as it could under the circumstances and even though I know it will almost certainly end in tears I'm continuing to hope for the best. Finally, it's amazing how much has already happened in five volumes of this story when you consider that the entire story is twenty-seven volumes long. It's well paced now and if it continues at this pace then it's literally an epic and I can't wait to read the rest regardless.

The Bad: I almost feel like Sarasa is gathering allies too easily in the story, she's not a shonen protagonist after all, but I recall a line (sadly I can't seem to find it at the moment) that said that while Sarasa should seek out the groups which have the three other swords that were made along with the one she inherited the swords aren't magical, it's to find the people who go with them that matters. So yes this seems to be too simple until you remember what kind of world these characters live in and what they stand to gain by allying themselves with their best chance at creating a better world for themselves, although the fact that this usually comes after a battle means I'm not going to give up that comparison anytime soon.

The Art: As previously alluded to, even though this manga started in 1991 it still has a bit of an 80s look to it, especially when you remember that the shojo manga from the 80s and the 90s don't look that different anyway. It's not a pretty manga as even the editor admits in their column in the back of the first volume, the characters have oddly elongated cheekbones, hair that seems to puff without hairspray, and rather unfashionable clothes as well. But it does have nice detail work and I was able to keep the characters straight much easier than I expected to and everything is laid out nicely as well, the art is just styled in an out-dated way. But I am curious about one thing Viz did, what the heck happened to the cover of volume two? Here's what the original Japanese cover looked like, here's what the cover of the volume I got out of the library I got looked like (the manga inside is unflipped). Apologies for the lighting because it does not truly get across just how damn pink this cover is, while some of it can be from aging over 10 years, and all of these volumes look a bit faded, I doubt that's the only reason why. Although, looking at these Japanese covers at least explains where the truly strange title font comes from, I had been questioning the sanity of designers in the early 2000s who were going for a font like that.

In short, if my library had more than the first five volumes I would have checked out and read those by now as well (funny enough, I'm not the only blogger to have this problem recently and according to Ash yes, this is one of those series with out of print volumes that are hideously priced). I actually got rather excited at Viz's panel at Otakon since when they were talking about their digital manga I swear they mentioned Basara yet when I checked online afterwords it's not on their site. Hopefully this means that it will be up soon, since they've put up a lot of the other "epic shojo fantasy" manga (Red River, From Far Away, Please Save My Earth although that's technically sci-fi) they must have at least tried to get the digital rights for this one as well.