Author:: Jin Zhou Huang
Manga-ka: Hiromu Arakawa
Publisher: Yen Press
Rating: Older Teen (16+)
Release Date: October 2009
Synopsis: “Legend speaks of seven heroes, each one bearing the power of one of the stars of the Big Dipper. Two of these stars are constantly in conflict, destined to battle and throw the world into chaos… Not that Taitou has ever paid much attention to old stories. Headstrong and defiant, he is the last in his village to complete his coming-of-age ceremony – a fact his sister Laila incessantly teases him about. When he is finally deemed worthy, he is presented with the Kenkaranbu, an ancient sword that can only be drawn by a true hero.”
Successful manga-ka often undertake side projects, – from Rumiko Takahashi’s publication of Maison Ikkoku while publishing weekly chapters of Urusei Yatsura, to the multiple projects often undertaken by CLAMP. With Fullmetal Alchemist being one of the biggest hits in the past decade among anime and manga fans, Hiromu Arakawa has decided to add herself to a list of famous multi-taskers with her own side project, Hero Tales. Published simultaneously with her Fullmetal Alchemist work, does it live up to the hype of her more well known title?
The story is a fairly straight-forward shonen action title, without the overly traumatic elements of Alchemist. After a revelation that Taitou is one of the destined warriors of a prophecy, complete with a tattoo from Fushigi Yugi, he and his sister embark on a quest, traveling across their pseudo-historical country where they will invariably encounter more tattooed warriors tied to Taitou’s fate. With elements like the magical sword and a berserker mode for Taitou, and hilariously unrequited romances, you soon see more familiar manga clichés being piled on.
What keeps the story from being mediocre is the fun cartooning and characterization. Taitou and Laila’s constant sibling combat, both physical and verbal, gives the series a fun, familial mood. The duo are supplemented by their overly polite guardian Ryuukou and Housei, a stray warrior they pickup on a quest for his master. Housei might be a slight Ryouga clone, but he’s an efficient one, moving believably from Laila’s dorky would-be boyfriend to a serious warrior, making a nice addition to Taitou’s building team. They are later joined by manly make-up artist Koyou, whose beautification hobby adds more subtle humour. In addition, female characters are treated as more than just accessories. Laila serves as an active part in the quest, plus there’s the revelation that Housei’s master is female. All these elements create a strong team book, which overcomes the more generic elements to provide readers with a fun, speedy and comfortable read.
All these characters are further strengthened by their excellent design work. With her deft style, Arakawa’s art provides the deciding factor. Characters are expressive in both facial expressions and body language, and though one or two will remind you of Fullmetal Alchemist characters, they all have generally distinct designs. There are assorted old people, adorable children, tough guys and a delightfully skanky villainess. Panels are never crowded as characters bounce along delicately detailed roofs and walls like Wuxia movie heroes and heroines. Arakawa’s research into Chinese architecture paid off well, giving us a decent fantasy landscape of castles and villages and it helps to establish the setting.
In terms of presentation, Yen Press continues with their standard of colour pages and Arakawa adds a fun bonus manga about how she and her assistants used researching the series as an excuse to visit China. The anecdotes are highly entertaining, particularly with Arakawa’s choice to represent herself as an anthropomorphic cow. The use of Japanese honorifics looks to be Yen Press’s standard presentation as well, though I would’ve preferred they opted to use English honorifics (ie “Sir“, “Lady“ etc.), as it occasionally drew me out of the Chinese setting. This was similar to my issues with Crimson Shell. Translation notes are included, and primarily concern the bonus manga, as the bulk of the story is very straightforward and thankfully not bogged down in historical or cultural details.
While not as inventive or dramatic as her more well-known work, this initial volume of Hero Tales is still a solid entry into the shonen action genre. I would recommend fans of Fullmetal Alchemist check out this volume, as well as fans who are fans of martial arts manga. Long time fans might have issues with the reused elements of the plot, but the cheerful nature of the series and solid artistic presentation help readers to overlook this. The series’ Chinese setting also provides it with something to differentiate it from other martial arts manga.
Ending on a cliff hanger, readers are promises more action and a threatening rival in Taitou’s quest. I’m looking forward to seeing how Hero Tales builds up, and if it can break out of the more clichéd aspects in future volumes.