February 5, 2010

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Basara Volume 1

Written by Yumi Tamura
Illustrated by Yumi Tamura
Viz

I really didn't need to add another twenty-some odd volume manga to my ongoing reading list, but here's Basara in all its dystopian future glory. While I'm not the biggest science fiction fan, I do like it when authors play with a future that's gone to hell, so I figured I would give it a try. Plus, this one is themed in the world of Shojo, a combination that intrigued me.

Yumi Tamura crafts a world where somewhere around this time, the world was basically blown apart into a barren wasteland, with only a few oasis-like territories to keep humanity alive. It's a hard live ruled by a cruel king and his warring sons.

Tatara and Sarasa are twins born on one of these plots of land, and Tatara is prophesied as the one who will free the people. Lauded all his life, Tatara is being groomed for greatness. This leaves Sarasa in quite a deep shadow and causes her to take great risks.

But the greatest risk of all is when, after her brother's quick death at the hands of the Red King (a son of the nominal ruler), Sarasa chops off her hair and takes on her brother's mantle. Can she will her people on and keep up the mask of masculinity required of her to bring the fight to those who killed her loved ones?

As with a fair amount of shojo, this one gets off to something of a slow start. Sarasa is whiny and surrounded by people who aren't particularly interesting. The villains have no complexity, and are merely the heavies who want to ruin the small life eked out by Sasara's family and friends. The desert setting doesn't leave much room for Tamura to give us anything other than a simple setting. We don't even have Sasara's troubled love interest (a shojo staple) at the start of the book.

I was starting to wonder if maybe I'd be best letting this one go unfinished, but I find it's good to give most titles a few volumes to build. Basara is definitely in that category. As the story progressed, Sarasa grew up in a hurry, becoming a troubled young woman forced into a role she never wanted (or did she?). She must carry on a lie, possibly for the rest of her life. She cannot grieve for her lost brother because to do so would reveal the truth and destroy everything. Will all this deception and inability to release her feelings ultimately consume her?

Similarly, the current foil, the Red King, is given a chance to get a bit more depth. He is a horrible person, of course, but his motivation is sound, if wrong. He seems no happier about the state of affairs than Sarasa and her clan, but sees a very different path to change. His obsession with the idea of Tatara's revolution will almost certainly be his downfall, and now that we know him a bit better, watching this should be fun for the reader.

Sarasa and the Red King's fixation on each other drives much of the second half of the book, and probably the series if I had to place a bet. Tamura sets this up brilliantly, by the way, but to say more ruins a lot of the book so I won't explore it here.

The biggest problem I see with Basara is that, unlike a lot of good ongoing series, there's not much depth to the cast. Sarasa, the Red King, and the Blue Noble are given complexity but everyone else feels like they're just scenery. I hope that changes as the volumes proceed, because such a slight regular cast may cause my interest to wander. I'm rather fond of ensemble casts, or at least giving background characters things to do. So far, there's very little of that happening in Basara.

Tamura's artwork is pretty typical for a a shojo manga. All of her character designs, right down to the angular chins, don't stand out in a crowd of other manga artists. There's an Arabian feel to the costume designs, with the Red King and his minions getting a slightly more military bearing. However, you won't see any particularly striking line work or attempts to keep the characters wearing distinct outfits. There's quite a few head shots and in some places I felt the panel structure was too cluttered. Overall, however, the manga flows pretty well and I never had to stop and try to figure out what happened. I think the best term to use would be serviceable.

I wasn't blown away by Basara, but I am intrigued by the intense hatred of the Red King and Sarasa for each other and the way in which Tamura is using it to drive the plot. If you like shojo and want to see it taken out of the classroom, give this a try. Those looking for a strong sci fi story might be better served reading something else, but the jury's still out as there's quite a bit of Basara left for me to read.