Monday, August 18, 2014

Review: BASARA

We're back to a proper series this week, with a severely underrated gem of a fantasy series from Viz.

BASARA, by Yumi Tamura.  First published in 1990, and first published in North America in 2003.

In post-apocalyptic Japan, the cruel Red King rules the desert land of Suo with an iron fist, stamping out the merest hint of rebellion in a swift and bloody manner.  In the village of Byakko, a pair of fraternal twins are born, and one of them is prophesized to be the leader who will bring peace to the land.  The elders believe this child to be the boy, Tatara, and his sister Sasara grows envious of the attention and liberties given to her brother with every year.

Their village remains safe until the two are well into their teens, when a raid led by the Red King leads to Tatara's death and the capture of many of the villagers.  Spurred on by her rage and grief, Sasara assumes her brother's identity and saves her village.  It is then that they realize that Tatara was never the chosen one - it was Sasara who would lead them to freedom.  Before that can happen, though, Sasara must recapture her brother's sword, save her mother, and try to avoid the advances of a strange and handsome stranger.

Now this is the kind of fantasy manga that I can really get behind!  While the setting takes a little bit from post-apocalyptic fiction along with Eastern and Western fantasy tropes and more than a fair bit of your standard hero's journey, it mixes these ideas up in a way that feels fresh and original.  It has a female lead who truly is a strong, independent woman without being a Strong Independent Woman (tm).  Sasara is a bold and quick-thinking warrior, but she's keenly aware of the elders and allies who now depend upon her for guidance and is touched by their support.  Even though she envied her brother as a child, she still cared for him as a brother and feels his loss greatly. 

She even has a romantic subplot, although that part is easily the most predictable part of the story.  Hmm, there's a somewhat douchey and assault-happy stranger whom she keeps running into at the hot springs.  He is unaware of her identity as a freedom fighter, and she has no idea who this jackass may be.  He couldn't possibly be the Red King because then she would be trapped in a ill-fated star-crossed sort of romance which will likely end badly for one, if not both of them.  It's much too early in the story to truly say where that plot line will go, and it's certainly got potential for drama, but you don't have to be well-read to have some idea of where this particular plotline is likely to go.  The rest of the cast is fairly familiar in their particular roles - there's a wise blind sage, a scarred ally of dubious morality, a gruff father figure, a kindly, supportive, and weak mother, weaselly peons serving as peons under the Red King, and so on.  They all serve their purpose to support Sasara on her quest, but they have nowhere near the complexity of our heroine.

The story structure may be familiar, but Tamura wisely takes her time to establish Sasara and her world before setting the main plot into motion.  We the readers get a good sense of what kind of person Sasara and her brother are like, and all that character building goes a long way towards making us care for and understand Sasara and her later actions.  It's not until halfway that Sasara takes over her brother's role, and by volume's end she's only taken a minor player in the Red King's court down, and even then her minor victory has some at some serious cost.  She's only begun to drop hints about dissent within the court and about the true identity of Sasara's would-be suitor, and is in no great rush to reveal them to the cast.  It's clear that Sasara is in for a long and hard-fought quest, but she's such a compelling character that by the end I was eager to read more.  While many elements of Basara felt familiar, I can truly say I was never bored by it.  It's an interesting blend of shoujo and epic fantasy, where there's just as much of a focus on the heroine's emotions and inner monologue as there is on destined saviors fighting against evil forces on horseback.  It's a work that fans of both genres can enjoy.

The art is far more typical of shoujo art from the 1980s.  The characters all have the pointy, triangular heads, big tousled hairstyles, and narrow, shimmering eyes that were so typical of the genre at that time.  Even though the style dates the artwork to some degree (seriously, the twins look like they could have been extras in a Pat Benetar video), Tamura puts a lot of detail into their looks.  She also tends to dictate the mood of a scene through her linework.  Most of the time her lines are solid and thick, but during more emotional points the linework becomes finer and more delicate.  She also gives Sasara's world an almost cinematic sort of scale.  There are lots of sweeping vistas mixed in the dramatic close-ups and layers.  Tamura is especially good at drawing action (and horses), something that often can't be said for a shoujo artist.  Her characters seem to move across the page with lightning speed, and often she uses stark black backdrops for better contrast and heightened drama. 

Thank goodness that Viz has been releasing so much of their back catalog digitally, because this smooth combination of shoujo drama with fantasy action makes Basara a sadly underlooked classic.  This is a series that deserves to be discovered for both older and newer manga readers alike.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan in 27 volumes.  All 27 volumes were released and are out of print.  The complete series is currently available in e-book form through Viz's website.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!

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