Manga-ka: Hiromu Arakawa
Publisher: Yen Press
Rating: Older Teen (16+)
Release Date: February 2010
Synopsis: “With the Imperial Army in hot pursuit, Housei leads Taitou and the others on a little detour to the home of his master. But the “mean old devil woman” he had described turns out to be nothing of the sort. Master Kouei is a veritable font of wisdom; in addition to knowing a more covert route into the capital, she is well versed in the legends of the Hokushin-Tenkun. There is much she can teach Taitou as he struggles to control the overwhelming power of his star, but will she have enough time to impart her wisdom before tragedy strikes?”
Hiromu Arakawa brings us yet more of her delightful side project, Hero Tales. She moves the story along at a brisk pace as Taitou meets more of the other destined stars, and we get to take in more of the lush surroundings of this mystical version of ancient China, along with its harsh realities of poverty and corruption. Arakawa excels at creating a fun cast and playing with readers emotions, similar to her work in Full Metal Alchemist, while also creating a compelling view of the lives and scenery of ancient China.
The forces of fate play a key role both in the mythical plot and in the realities of the characters’ world. Refugees are trapped by their fate of poverty, just as the Emperor is trapped by the fate of his birth, ruling the country because of his blood. He’s held back by the corrupt politicians who have overtaken his court and have hidden the truth about the capital and the rest of his country from him. Taitou keeps meeting others whose fates are controlled by the stars of the Big Dipper, as simple coincidences build to events with grave consequences.
Many new, chipper characters emerge in this volume, though readers of Arakawa’s Full Metal Alchemist know her characters often don’t have things easy. Housei’s master is finally introduced, and isn’t exactly what I expected. A perky, youthful woman, she initially seems to be a ditz, but is a fountain of knowledge who serves Taitou and friends well by exposing them to more of the legends concering the stars, plus Taitou’s role as the star Hagun. In addition to this, she is a skilled warrior who passes her skills onto Taitou.
Arakawa also introduces another cast member in Rinmei, a childhood friend who hides serious martial arts skills, and has a slight chip on her shoulder. Arakawa gives us a wonderful feel for these two in addition to expanding on the cast in the palace, including more scenes with the general Keirou, whose intentions regarding Taitou and his sword remain a little unclear. Between the creator’s dialogue and deft design skills, it makes for an emotional experience when things go bad for her cast.
Arakawa’s artwork continues to be solid – the steady sort of material you expect from an artist whose studio has been working the monthly grind for almost a decade. It’s a little overly slick, but a very smooth read with pleasing artwork. Arakawa’s research trip allowed for lots of great details as Taitou makes his way to the capital and the Imperial Palace. Some really striking visuals come at the end of this volume as Taitou tours a refugee camp, then sneaks into the Palace. It provides some really contrasting views of the difference in lifestyles of people of this era and Arakawa adapts her art style to suit each – the camp brings about death-like imagery, and the Palace evokes tranquil beauty reminiscent of more romantic adventure stories set in China.
I hadn’t commented on it in the review of volume one, but I was curious that while the work is credited to Arakawa, she also credits “Huang Jin Zhou” for story. Researching it a little shows that “Huang Jin Zhou”, a Chinese name, is Arakawa’s version of Sunrise’s beloved “creator” Hajime Yadate, in that it’s just a pseudonym for the creators involved in making Hero Tales, namely Arakawa herself and the anime studio who created the anime adaptation of Hero Tales that aired alongside the manga’s serialization. This was also something we saw with the Be-Pappas credit on Revolutionary Girl Utena, representing the anime direction, animation director and manga artist. Kusanagi appears to be the background painting studio that worked on the anime, who I’m guessing played a part in the conceptual work alongside Arakawa. As such, the manga itself is created by Arakawa, but conceived in collaboration as part of a larger project, hence the additional credits on the manga.
Yen Press’s presentation continues to be excellent. The manga includes yet more bonus comics concerning Arakawa’s trip to China with her assistants, which includes a funny moment of anachronistic pop culture that throws her back to the 21st century while touring an ancient castle. The paper is thicker then most domestic manga publishers, and includes a colour insert, and a character guide that helps you keep track of all the major players.
Hero Tales is a solid manga I’d recommend to everyone- especially as the second volume gives you more of a feel for the characters. Arakawa’s storytelling is a treat, and while not terribly original, it’s all done quite competently, and I look forward to seeing how the plot develops in future volumes. A good choice for those who love period dramas and are looking for something with mild fantasy elements and free of the usual samurai fare. The Chinese setting does make for a slightly different taste than historical manga set in Japan, and the fun, familial cast makes for a pleasant and involving read.