ARISA, by Natsumi Ando. First published in 2008, and first published in North America in 2009.
We begin with Tsubasa Uehara, the so-called 'Demon Princess' of Higashi Junior High. If you asked Tsubasa herself, she would say that she simply has "more intregrity than most people." Too bad that all Tsubasa really wants to do is hang out with the other girls in her class and do typically girly things. In other words, she wants to be like her twin sister Arisa, whom she hasn't seen in three years due to their parents' divorce.
The sisters reunite, and Tsubasa can't help but be envious of her sister's perfect life. When Arisa suggests switching places for the day, Tsubasa is eager to play along. Tsubasa is stunned by her sister's school life, as she is not only class president but also has a girly-girl best friend in Mariko and a blandly attractive boyfriend in Midori. Everything goes swimmingly until the end of the day, when Tsubasa finds a note in her sister's locker: "Arisa Sonoda is a traitor." Upon seeing it, the real Arisa talks of disappearing from the world, and does her best to do so by throwing herself out a window. Arisa survives, but is now stuck in a coma, and Tsubasa wants answers.
Now Tsubasa must continue to play the part of Arisa, and only her best friend Takeru knows the truth. Tsubasa soon discovers that the mysterious note may be tied to a class-wide game, where the students of the class send text message wishes to a figure known only as The King. The King picks one wish at random to grant, and the wish is always fulfilled, be it getting the answers to a test or making a perverted PE teacher disappear. Who is The King? How can he exert such power over the class? Where does Manabe, the class rebel, fit into all of it? Is he a possible ally for Tsubasa, or the enemy?
STORY: I was familiar with Ando previously as the artist for Kitchen Princess, a frothy little shoujo series with a cooking angle. If Arisa is any indication, Ando should stick to working on her own, because what seems like another typical shoujo series at the start gets mighty dark mighty fast. Arisa is more akin to something like Higurashi When They Cry than Kitchen Princess.
I think that comparison comes from the fact that like Higurashi, the tone can switch moods in a blink of an eye. In a moment a normal, happy classroom can become a solemn cult. In a moment, a single, ephemeral text message can alter the class's reality, and anyone who questions its power is shunned and driven to suicide. The reader can't help but share Tsubasa's confusion and righteous anger when confronted with this strange sort of mass hysteria, much less the potentially supernatural forces behind it, and thus we are just as driven as Tsubasa to find the answers to these mysteries and make things right. It goes without saying then that the pacing is perfect, giving out just enough information to keep things moving but never enough to make any obvious guesses.
I really like Tsubasa in a way that I rarely do with shoujo heroines. She's proactive, but she has enough common sense to not plunge herself into danger without some sort of plan. She's very outspoken and defends others as both Tsubasa and 'Arisa'. Too bad that like so many shoujo heroines, she's made to feel guilty for not being meek, mild, and traditionally feminite. That's a shame, because I honestly like her the way she is. That might also explain why I also like Takeru, who knows and likes Tsubasa the way she is, versus the milquetoast Midori or the generic bad boy Manabe. The rest of the cast isn't all that notable, although Mirako has some rather creepy moments when she starts talking about The King.
Arisa is a solid shoujo mystery with a fantastic lead, a manga that uses its fluffy setting to manipulate the tone of the story masterfully.
Coming back to Kitchen Princess, I couldn't say that I was impressed with Ando's art before. If anything, I would have said that she was trying way too hard to ape Arina Tanemura and as I've stated before, that is a style that is too disgustingly cute for my taste. Arisa has something of a more rounded, refined art style. Her characters designs are a little more rounded and realistic (even if they are sometimes a bit stiff), and overall everything is less angular and cluttered. She does have a rather busy style of composition, as panels are divided up, stacked atop one another, and characters extend outside their panel borders. It can get a bit busy at times, as Ando can get a little crazy with the screen tones and effects. Overall, Ando's art isn't going to revolutionize the world of shoujo, but she does show improvement and refinement from her previous works as she finally develops a proper style of her own.
There's a fairly long feature in the back where the characters critique their own early character models, as well as an okame about Ando getting a dog. As typical for a Del-Ray/Kodansha release, there is an honorifics guide in the front and translation notes in the back.
Arisa genuinely surprised me. I expected fluffy sweetness, and got mass hysteria and mystery instead. If you want a modern shoujo series with a strong lead and a strong story, this is a series well worth your time.
This series was published by Del-Ray, and continued by Kodansha. 9 of the 12 available volumes have been released with more coming this year, and all are currently in print.
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