Of course, I can't let a month of magical girl manga pass without looking at one of the many works of one of the best known (and widely published, even in English) mangaka, Arina Tanemura. There are more than quite a few series of hers to choose from (and I will get to them in time), but today I'll be looking at her most recent series.
SAKURA-HIME: THE LEGEND OF PRINCESS SAKURA (Sakura Hime Kaden), by Arina Tanemura. First published in 2008 and first published in North America in 2011.
During the Heien Era, Sakura is an orphaned princess living deep in the countryside. She is supported only by the charity of Prince Oura, to whom she has been betrothed since childhood. Now at 14 years old, it is time for her to marry, but Sakura wants no part of it. Her reluctance isn't helped by the prince's emissary Aoba, as the two get along about as well as oil and water. To the surprise of no one, Aoba turns out to be Oura himself, and bit by bit he begins to win Sakura over. This is the least of her conflicts, though.
For her whole life, Sakura has been forbidden to gaze upon the full moon, and in a rebellious fits she does just that. It turns out that Sakura is a descendant of Princess Kagura, a mythical being from the moon, and the countryside is full of demons that are drawn to her. The only time they can find her, though, is during a full moon. Luckily, Sakura is not defenseless. She possesses the ability to call forth her grandmother's magical sword and fight the demons herself. Once her powers are revealed, Sakura must flee for her life, as it turns out that there are more than just demons who wish to exploit her powers.
This is one mixed-up crazy story. It starts out as romance, then takes a sharp turn into magical girl territory, only to veer off again into more of a fantasy adventure. All these genre twists leave the reader reeling, never knowing where the story (and the tone, for that matter) may go. This might not be such a bad thing if all these twists were centered around a compelling lead, but alas for us our lead is little more than a magical brat.
If I may be allowed to rant for a moment, am I the only one who is sick to death of the 'rebellious princess doesn't want to marry for duty, but for love' story? It's a cliché that's been trod out time and again on both sides of the Pacific, and it's rare when it works for me as a character arc because it almost always ends in one of two ways:
1. The princess will find someone else along the way to fall in love with and marry.
2. The princess will end up falling in love with the fiancée whom she could not stand before.
After all, they are princesses - they are almost always raised within cultures or political systems where marrying for political or financial gain is as common as dirt, so what gives them cause to start questioning the system now? (Other than 'because most Western cultures now value love in relationships' and 'because most Western cultures no longer view women as property to be exchanged through marriage.) Why are these princesses never interested in experiencing a new country or culture, or eager to exploit the newfound influence and power that comes with both being a queen (or equivalent title) and as a married woman?
Ok, with that rant out of my system, let's get back to the issue of Sakura. She is one of these cliché rebellious princesses to a T, and not even a terribly mature one at that. Her idea of rebelling against her fate is to run away and pout, like a child running away from a scolding. She's an incredibly childish and contrary character, and far too annoying and simple to be the least bit sympathetic. Much like the story itself, her personality runs all over the place and always at extremes, shifting from bratty to sweet to sad to determined on a whim. Like I noted above, she does eventually come around to her fiancée, but it feels forced, like it's happening solely because the mangaka (or the cliché, or both) demand it instead of happening naturally through character interaction.
Mind you, at least she has a personality (or at least fragments of personalities) - the same can't be said for the rest of the cast. Oura is your standard shoujo jerkass - not an out-and-out tsundere, but the kind of person who is sweet to Sakura one moment and teasing her the next. Everyone is one note, ranging from Sakura's wise old guardian Byakuya, her little spirit maid Asagiri, or Sakura's new, energetic ninja girl sidekick Kohaku.
You'd think a story about historical magical girl, especially one tied to a well-known Japanese myth, would be an interesting twist on the genre. The problem is that it tries to be too much at once by throwing every story idea at the metaphorical wall and seeing what sticks. Worse still, it's led by an annoying brat whose mood shifts awkwardly with every genre shift, who is in turn surrounded by hollow clichés for a supporting cast. There are tons of ideas, but none of them have enough thought and effort put into them to make them truly original or interesting, and in the end it's nothing but a mess.
It's not just Sakura-Hime's story that is messy - the art is also too busy for its own good. Tanemura has a very distinct style of character design, but it's one that's always been too cutesy for my taste. They are creatures with enormous shiny saucer eyes, stuck into bobbleheads on top of matchstick bodies. These creatures are in turn plopped into a veritable explosion of long, patterned kimonos, long, swirling hair, flower petals, screen effects, and so much more. Tanemura damn near throws the artistic equivalent of the kitchen sick at the reader's eyes, and the result is tacky and confusing.
It's a shame because there are points where are some beautiful or striking images, or lovely little touches like the light line work of a kimono pattern or the trees in the background. Her action scenes aren't terrible either, as she uses a handful of well-drawn and staged poses in lieu of lots of speed lines. Instead, these tiny bits of loveliness are drowned out by the sheer volume of STUFF on the pages. It certainly doesn't help that the panels are packed in tight on the pages in jumble of size and shape. Normally a bit of variety in the panels helps to bring some visual interest to the pages, but when they are packed with so much STUFF it just becomes a mess of ink and effects. It also doesn't help that the panels are rather tightly focused on the characters, and that Tanemura uses screen effects and tones like they were going out of style.
I can't help but get the feeling that Tanemura could be a good artist, or at least a better at art than she is at storytelling. If she teamed up with a writer that rein her in and keep her focuses, she could be quite good. As it is, Sakura-Hime's art is as mixed-up as its story.
There are a couple of sketches of Sakura, along with a brief author bio and an equally brief retelling of the legend of Princess Kaguya.
Sakura-Hime is too jumbled and nonsensical for its own good, wanted to be too many thing at once and succeeding at none of them.
This series is published by Viz. This series is ongoing in Japan, with 12 volumes available. 9 of the 12 volumes have been published so far, and all are currently in print.
You can purchase this volume and many more like it through RightStuf.com!