I feel bad for implying that there wasn't any truly stand-out shoujo series released this year as that's simply not true. Things can't be all bad when you get a new series from the creator of Dawn of the Arcana.
THE WATER DRAGON'S BRIDE (Suijin no Hanayome), by Rei Toma. First published in 2015 and first published in North America in 2017.
Asahi was just playing in her parents' yard when she's whisked into the pond and transported to a realm that's many hundreds of years before her own. Initially she is saved by a young boy from the village, but the rest of the village sees her as an outsider who will do as a sacrifice to the water dragon in the lake. Now she is trapped in the realm of the water dragon who has little interest in humanity, much less a bride, desperate to simply go home.
In some ways, The Water Dragon's Bride is something of a throwback to the old days of shoujo. It's been a good long while since we've had a proper shoujo isekai story, where a girl is sucked into another world to find her destiny and usually a smattering of love interests along the way. Rei Toma brings some novel new twists to this formula, and in the process creates something sadder and more somber though no less fanciful.
The biggest twist is that our heroine Asahi is not your standard 14-year-old ingenue, but instead a child barely out of kindergarten. This gives her more cause to be naive and helpless than most heroines of her ilk, as she's a little girl who cannot comprehend the magnitude of her situation and trusts adults inherently. That also means that after a while, it almost feels cruel to watch Toma put her through the ringer both phyiscally and emotionally since she's literally not old enough to understand what's happening to her and why the adults around her are being so callous.
The only antidote to this is the time she spends with the village boy Subaru. He tries to comfort and care for her,and as the story progresses he becomes something close to a co-protagonist. He gets an emotional arc of his own, as his innocence is torn from him and replaced instead by guilt and a determination to find Asahi again. In comparison, the titular water dragon is colder and more distant, appropriate for a god who is anything but human (well...when he's not being a bit of a pompous tsundere). The downside to this is that it leaves Asahi without a lot of agency in her own story, as it increasingly becomes more of a tug-of-war between the god and Subaru. Hell, the only reason she survives the first volume is the intervention of a gaggle of other gods who mostly serve as a snarky audience for the water dragon's actions.
As cruel as this may sound, there's enough intelligence and purpose in the writing to make it clear that Toma has a plan for our leading trio. She's taking her time to establish them and their motivations clearly, so now it's just a matter of time to see how this three-way struggle turns out.
In contrast to the tone of the story, the artwork is quite cute. This is most evident with Asahi and Subaru themselves, who are adorable, saucer-eyed moppets with big, bright smiles. When they start suffering, though, she really demonstrates just how much emotion she can get out of her cast. Some of it is done through expression, but a lot of it is simply through framing and montage. She puts a lot of emphasis on Asahi and Subaru's hands, reaching out for one another even when alone. She makes good use of the size difference between the water dragon and Asahi to emphasize the power difference between them and the physical space he puts between them. It's simple but elegant stuff.
The Water Dragon's Bride takes an old shoujo idea and makes it new, if not more than a little depressing. It's thoughtful and beautifully composed and I'm curious to see just how it will turn out.
This series is published by Viz. This series is ongoing in Japan with 7 volumes available. 3 volumes have been released and are currently in print.
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