Mr. Rosa is totally cute, just as I pictured him. Nice work, Neil.
Also, today I inagurate my new semiregular feature: Shaenon's Overlooked Manga Festival!
In each installment, I'm going to ramble on about a manga that I feel is unfairly overlooked by American readers. My tastes being what they are, most of these will probably be relatively old manga, especially classic shojo (girls') manga. I am such a sucker for it.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST WARNING: I work for Viz, and most of the titles I discuss will be Viz manga. I know Viz's line better than the output of any other manga publisher, and I also have a pretty good idea of which Viz manga are not getting the love they deserve. Eventually I'll probably get into titles from other publishers, like the awesome '70s shojo manga published by DC/CMX. But most of the titles I cover will be Viz manga, and, frankly, more than a few will be titles I've personally worked on.
Like this bad boy:
Basara is one of the manga you can mention to a lot of the Japanese-born women at the Viz office and get a warm, nostalgic smile. (Banana Fish is another, only even more so.) It was immensely popular in Japan during its run in the early '90s, and with good reason. It's got everything: action, adventure, romance, beautiful men, rugged women, a little historical fiction, a touch of sci-fi, sweeping vistas of pretty much every description, cunning plots, legendary swords, and a cute animal sidekick. An owl, to be precise.
One of the things that drives me nuts about shojo manga is the preponderence of weak, passive heroines. You know, the ones who sob and apologize and stand around letting things happen to them for about ten volumes before they grow a spine. Yumi Tamura definitely does not craft protagonists in the inert, rape-fantasy damsel-in-distress mold. A Tamura heroine is pretty much constantly leaping astride some form of awesome transportation--a motorcycle, a skateboard, a powerful stallion that only allows her to mount him--and riding off to right wrongs and upset the status quo. Sarasa, the heroine of Basara, is the epitome of Tamura badassitude. The manga is set in a vaguely-defined postapocalyptic future in which Japan has returned to a primitive feudal state and the land is governed by the four sons of King Ukon. Sarasa's twin brother, Tatara, is marked as the "boy of destiny" with the power to lead Japan to peace, freedom, and not living in medieval filth all the time. Unfortunately, Tatara is killed in battle by the forces of the Red King, one of the aforementioned four princes. Obviously, Sarasa has only one choice: cut her hair, dress in drag, pretend to be Tatara, and save Japan in his place.
Oh, but there's more. In the course of her journey, Sarasa falls in love with a young man named Shuri, not realizing that...wait for it...he's actually the Red King! Too bad "Tatara" and the Red King, in their official capacities, have made solemn vows to murder each other, huh? It's pretty much the most improbable romantic twist imaginable, but it's also totally rad, especially as the series continues and the when-the-hell-will-they-figure-it-out tension keeps escalating. I don't want to spoil anything, but rest assured that when the other shoe finally drops, some bad shit goes down.
Tamura's artwork is fantastic. I imagine a lot of American readers are turned off by the oh-so-90s style: it's an explosion of huge eyes and huger hair. But, dated or not, it's damn good. A lot of the pages are your standard lovely, expressive shojo layouts, but there are also some action shots that pop like a mother:
Damn, that top panel is like a Frank Miller wet dream. Incidentally, the chick leaping into the page is a deadly spy/assassin who's also a mad-genius inventor. Now that you've read that sentence, you have to read this manga. (And let me just note that, whereas an American comic book would probably consider one ass-kicking female character more than enough, Basara has a bunch of them, in all kinds of flavors. There's also a pirate captain whose boyfriend is her loyal first mate, and honestly, who can't get behind that?)
So you've got nice action-y layouts, and then you've got quiet, contemplative moments like this:
That woman can hella draw. Her color work is amazing, too. The Basara artbooks are a treat to pore over, and all of the manga covers are elaborate wraparound images. One of my not-so-secret fantasies is to be able to draw well enough that I can just spend all my time doing elaborate full-color pictures of my characters engaged in activities that may or may not have anything to do with the actual comic. It looks like so much fun.
My man Jason Thompson is not quite as enamored of Basara as I am, possibly because he was never a thirteen-year-old girl (he just wishes he was). He points out that the plot vascillates wildly between grittily realistic action and outlandish shojo melodrama. I am forced to concede that this is the case. It's also true that the 27-volume series drags in a couple of spots. If you get to the part where the gang is stuck in the underground prison, please know that it WILL end. But for the most part I love the way the plot takes its time to build, patiently following Sarasa from her rocky start with a ragged band of rebels to the point where she can command a massive army culled from every corner of Japan. Plus she has an arch-nemesis for a boyfriend and a nifty pet owl.
Anyway. Basara: great art, great story, pet owl, shojo classic. Totally worth your time and reading pleasure.