March 3, 2010

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Basara Volume 2

Written by Yumi Tamura
Illustrated by Yumi Tamura
Viz

Sarasa's quest to avenge her family takes an interesting journey and an ironic twist in this second volume of Basara. Set in a world that's experienced horrible things and leaves Japan as mostly a desert wasteland, our protagonist must try to balance her desire to take up her slain brother's mantle and to just lead a normal life as a teenage girl. Yet how can anything be normal where cruel masters rule the land, ready to kill at whim? She's vowed to change things--and kill the Red King--but can she do it?

This volume is almost entirely centered around Sarasa's journey, both within herself and through a perilous tunnel from which no one has ever escaped. Having decided to make it on her own after the disasters of the last volume, Tamura takes Sarasa on a quest to see if she can prove worthy of the respect of those who are counting on her, such as Ageha, who pays a price for his allegiance to her.

The answer might be pretty obvious--this is a manga that goes on for over twenty volumes, so it's not like our heroine is going to fail this early--but I like the way we get inside Sarasa's head as she overcomes the dangers of the tunnel. She has to mature in order to survive, allowing us both plot and character development at the same time. It's a nice touch.

Once Sarasa steels herself to the task at hand, she is face with new challenges, including one to her title of Tatara! Again, we know generally how this problem will resolve, but watching Sarasa work her way through it gives us strong character development while also moving the plot along. By the end of the volume, one of Sarasa's actions may prove to be the cruelest of ironies, continuing a thread from the first book.

I really want to see how Sarasa succeeds (or fails) at her task, as she's definitely wavering here, making for a more interesting story than if she had a single-minded attitude. Her complexity and inner conflict drives this manga, using the same problems a typical shojo heroine might have, but in a very different and innovative way. We're only two volumes in, and I really care about Sarasa and want to see her do well, even if the prospects don't look good for her.

That's one of the other strengths of this manga--Tamura keeps the impossible mission possible without it veering into "OH COME ON!" territory. (That's usually my biggest problem with dystopian narratives.) While Sarasa's tasks are difficult, they are still plausible, within the context of a work of fiction. I have been happily surprised that nothing that's happened so far has caused me to feel jarred out of the story.

On the other hand, the weakness of the cast is very much on display here. This manga is about Sarasa and the Red King, and everyone else just rotates around them. Luckily, they are both interesting characters, but if at any point they start to grow stale, this manga will not be as enjoyable, because we do not have a strong stable of backup characters to rely upon to carry things for a volume or two. (There are Ageha and Shido, but neither are on stage enough, in my opinion, to carry the story in a pinch.)

It could just be my imagination, but I felt like the artwork in this volume was stronger than in the previous trade. We are still viewing typical shojo artwork, but the level of detail in the dress of the characters, the backgrounds, and even Sarasa's face felt crisper to me. That helped me get into the story better, as I felt more immersed in the world.

I'm going to keep reading Basara because I really want to see how the story plays out. I don't think it's a must read for anyone, but if you are looking for a new setting for your favorite shojo themes, I'd give this a try. As long as the story and art continue on their current path, I'll be along for the journey.