Yen Press scored a hell of a deal last year. Not only did they rescue Fruits Basket, one of the last remaining gems of the Tokyopop library, but also picked up Natsuki Takaya's two most recent (and up to that point, unlicensed) works. We only have time and space enough to check out one of those two, but I'm sure you're just as curious as I am to discover what a post-Fruits Basket Takaya is like.
LISELOTTE & WITCH'S FOREST (Rizerotte to Majo no Mori), by Natsuki Tayaka. First published in 2011 and first published in North America in 2016.
Once upon a time, a noblewoman named Liselotte exiled herself to a distant forest along with her two servants Anna and Alto. Her situation was born from tragedy, but she's determined to be helpful and make the most of her exile, no matter how much Alto might object. After all, it's said that there are dangerous witches in the woods. There's also a strange young man named Engetsu who reminds Liselotte of her past, but he might not be all that he appears to be...
It would have been easy for Takaya to rest on her laurels and basically just keep making variations on Fruits Basket for the rest of her career. While there definitely are some recycled ideas here, Liselotte & Witch's Forest does distinguish itself as a pleasant little fantasy tinged with tragedy.
It's really hard to look at Liselotte and not see more than a little bit of Tohru Honda in her. She's saintly and gentle in spite of a tragic past (complete with a dead relative) and she's got a bit of a guilt complex so she tries her hardest to make herself useful to others. She's perfectly endearing and harmless as far as heroines go, but she's also by far the most derivative part of it as well. Anna and Alto mostly exist for manzai-style comic relief, but Alto is a far more realized character than his twin. It's not just the fact that he's priggish, but he's also the only pragmatic one. He's the only one willing to call out how unusual this arrangement is and how much danger they are in. In other words, he's the perfect antidote to Liselotte's sunniness and together the trio balances out one another nicely.
Alto's not wrong about the danger, mind you It was danger that brought them to the woods and now there's the danger of the witches said to roam the woods. Then there's Engetsu, a mysterious man who can fight witches but reveals else about himself or his past. A canny reader can probably guess a couple of things about him based on his actions and Liselotte's reactions to him. One of those suspicions is confirmed by volume's end; the other remains uncertain, but frankly if you've read enough shoujo you can see where this is going. He shakes up what otherwise would have been a rather tedious norm, but I do wish it didn't have to involve a particularly annoying little catboy. Catboys and reused ideas aside, this is a good start to a promising series. There's not much more to say since this is mostly just set-up and backstory, but she's clearly laying a good foundation for the story yet to come.
Takaya's art was always rather minimalist for shoujo. Her characters are comparatively plain for the genre, she tends to favor screentones over drawn backgrounds, and she's never gotten too crazy with her page and panel composition. Liselotte is no exception to this, but it also benefits from the advancements she's made as an artist just through time and practice. The characters are plain, but they've much more shaded and subtle than those in the early days of Fruits Basket. They now have literal dimension to go with the emotional dimension this story possesses. She emphasizes the emotion and distracts from her lack of backgrounds through a lot of close-ups. Thankfully, she opens things up visually for the big emotional moments: the big clutches, the searching glances, the outburst of emotion, and even a little bit of action when the witch actually shows up. It's frequent enough to keep the paneling from feeling too claustrophobic and altogether it supports the kind of quiet, occasionally somber feelings that the story has to offer.
Liselotte & Witch's Forest shows that Takaya hasn't lost her touch. She may be reusing some ideas and she'll never be a spectacular artist, but she knows how to combine them with charm, tenderness, and skill to create something that feels fresh. Now if he can just get her off of hiatus and back to work on this one.
This series is published by Yen Press. This series is on hiatus in Japan with 5 volumes available. 2 volumes have been published and are currently in print.
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