I can live with all those lesser shoujo titles, though, because this year also brought us some really great titles, like today's inspired take on both history and classic literature.
REQUIEM OF THE ROSE KING (Bara-O no Soretsu), by Aya Kanno. First published in 2013 and first published in North America in 2015.
In the waning years of the Middle Ages, the noble houses of York and Lancashire are fighting amongst themselves to control the English crown. One of the many people caught up in that battle is Richard, the youngest son and namesake of the Duke of York. Richard is seen by many as cursed with an unnatural body and a cruel destiny, but for now all Richard cares about is proving his worth on the battlefield and restoring his family to glory. That plan is about to get a lot more complicated when Richard unwittingly makes friends with the naïve and pious Henry VI, the king of England and the House of York's greatest enemy.
You have to give Aya Kanno credit for being so ambitious with this series. I certainly wouldn't have pegged the woman behind Otomen to create a shoujo manga about the War of the Roses based on a handful of Shakespeare history plays (mostly Richard the III, obviously, but also incorporating bits of Henry VI as well), albeit with some noticeable differences from both real history and Shakespeare's own take on it. I also wouldn't have expected it to turn out so damn good, but here we are.
The most interesting and notable thing about this adapting is how she handles Richard. After all, a major theme of the play was how Richard's twisted frame was a reflection of his equally twisted mind. Kanno decided to take things in a very different and far more sympathetic direction: she made Richard intersexed. In the wrong hands, this could have turned out VERY badly, but Kanno handles it with sensitivity and makes it work thematically. Richard's physical condition may be less obvious to the naked eye than a hunchback, but the insecurity he feels over it is no less real. It feeds into his desire for acceptance from others, something he can only get from his father. It feeds into his using his mind and speech to compensate for his underdeveloped frame. It even feeds into the potentially supernatural forces that haunt him, be it the voices in the woods that speak of his birth or the visions of Joan of Arc who taunts Richard over his gender. Joan of Arc is a historical figure that tends to be used a bit randomly in Japanese media, but here it works because she too was someone who stepped outside of gender norms.
The only downside to the heavy focus on Richard and his inner monologue is that things move rather slowly. I can understand why she did this - The War of the Roses is a rather convoluted civil war with a lot of people on both sides to introduce, and Kanno needs to take her time to set up who's who and what's what. It's just that it might not appeal to those more used to livelier, more fast-paced pieces. Still, that slow pace means plenty of time to focus on character and to throw in a few more Shakespeare quotations. These are Requiem of the Rose King's greatest strengths, so I'm personally more than content to let her take her time and show how an innocent child can become a bloodthirsty king.
It seems that Kanno even took a more serious approach to her artwork here compared to her previous works. Sure, there are plenty of pretty faces with sharp features and lush eyes, as well as a lot of flowing heavy robes and dresses, but the shadows are more defined and she puts a lot of effort and detail into the interiors of the castles and the piles of bodies on the battlefields. The standout is (naturally) Richard, and I really like the way she sets him apart visually from the rest of the cast. Richard is not only suitably androgynous, but also more slight and sallow than the others. This is only emphasized by his tightly bound black wardrobe and the swoop of black bangs that conceal his mismatched eyes. It does make him feel a little supernatural at times and his looks fits perfectly with the themes that Kanno uses him to explore. Kanno makes the most of her page space, but her paneling is economical. No space is wasted, but it never becomes too crowded or decadent to lose the reader, opening up at just the right dramatic moments to better capture an expression. It's the sort of artwork that doesn't necessarily draw attention to itself, but the level of quality and skill on display is not lost on the reader.
Despite the fact that I know perfectly well how the War of the Roses ends, I'm desperately curious to see how Requiem of the Rose King turns out. Kanno took some real chances with this series and made some major changes, but the parts all come together into a glorious whole and it's absolutely one of the standout manga titles of 2015.
This series is published by Viz. This series is ongoing in Japan with 5 volumes available. 2 volumes have been published and all are currently in print.
Remember to leave a comment here to enter the Holiday Giveaway to win a $25 RightStuf gift certificate!