(Warning: This article contains major spoilers for Yumi Tamura’s Basara and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.)
Confession time: Some of you may have gleaned this from our fanfiction roundtable a couple of years ago, but I’ll admit it plainly now. I was a fan of Draco Malfoy—not so much the Draco Malfoy that J.K. Rowling actually ended up writing, but the Draco Malfoy I thought she was writing, all the way up until the final book in the series.
It was all incredibly clear, you see. This spoiled, fair-haired, delicate flower whose life of privilege had turned him into a bigoted, arrogant bully was the polar opposite of hero Harry—slick on the outside and twisted within, smart and talented, but taught to lie and cheat and cry to daddy whenever anything went wrong. He was Harry’s negative image. When, early on in volume five, the highly revered (but generally reticent) Sorting Hat chose to sing a song to the Hogwarts student body, warning them that the four houses of Hogwarts must unite or crumble from within, that meant that somehow the brave Gryffindors and ambitious Slytherins must learn to work together, and who better to serve as the catalyst for that but Draco Malfoy?
Obsessed with Harry from the beginning and eternally offended by Harry’s refusal to take his hand, it seemed obvious that Draco Malfoy was the key to heeding the Hat’s warning. And when, in the sixth book, Draco came face-to-face with the real terror of the Dark Lord—reduced to crying in a haunted bathroom over his horrifying plight—finally humanized in his darkest moments—Rowling’s plan seemed to be firmly underway. (I once wrote that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was my favorite Harry/Draco fanfic of 2005, and I wasn’t really joking.) As a result, not only would Hogwarts and the entire wizarding world be saved, but both Draco and Harry would have learned to be better people—people who could tolerate and even embrace their differences and use them to their best advantage.
Except that wasn’t Rowling’s plan. At all. Because apparently what the Hat really meant was “the four houses except Slytherin,” so in the brave students’ moment of glory, the Slytherins were sent to the dungeons and Draco Malfoy slunk off in a cowardly, shameful fashion with his cowardly, shameful parents to live a cowardly, shameful life.
I was devastated, honestly. I mean, I’d managed to weather the senseless death of a favorite character, the cruel murder of an owl, and some of the worst romantic dialogue ever written, but I just couldn’t believe that Rowling had squandered a character she seemed to have put so much work into. And was the Hat just singing for its health? WTF, J.K. Rowling? My Draco, he was gone.
Then, I met Asagi.
It’s important to note that Asagi is actually talking about himself in this panel. Though known to the public (and even to the so-called Blue King himself) as the leader of the Blue King’s guard, it’s Asagi—first introduced in volume four of Yumi Tamura’s epic shoujo fantasy, Basara—who is actually the Blue King, pulling all the strings from behind the scenes. He’s proud of himself and his cunning, and extraordinarily arrogant, but when, after the false Blue King’s fall, he joins up with rebel leader Tatara (with the intention to ruin both Tatara and their mutual enemy, the Red King) the cracks in his shiny, shiny armor begin to show.
Thanks to his proximity to the story’s heroine, Sarasa, and her love interest, Shuri, during the Blue King’s horrifying “race,” along with a little inside knowledge (the Red King is his younger brother, after all), Asagi is the first person in the story to become aware that Sarasa and Shuri are, in fact, Tatara and the Red King—sworn enemies in love with each other—so his initial plans revolve around trying to control the circumstances under which they will discover this (and be discovered) in order to ensure maximum damage to both sides.
In the meantime, he connives and wheedles. He plots to create conflicts within Tatara’s camp. He sexually harasses Sarasa by skulking around her bedroom and stealing a kiss from her when she’s lost her eyesight. He’s a hateful menace in every way. He even cackles with glee like a freaking supervillain.
No, seriously. Check it out. —>
There’s no romanticizing Asagi. He’s a vicious brat whose lifelong jealousy of his hotshot little brother has consumed him to the point that, not only is he intent on being hurtful to others, he’s simultaneously hurting himself by letting his own issues render him a pawn in the game of someone who doesn’t even really care about him all that much. He’s acting on the White King’s orders, but to his own peril, as she’s really only using him to achieve her own revenge.
Any of this sounding familiar?
It was just a few days ago, while working on our upcoming Basara roundtable, that I realized… Asagi is the Draco Malfoy I thought J.K. Rowling was writing. And wow am I glad to see him at long last.
I said there’s no romanticizing Asagi, and I meant it. He’s not a romantic figure at all. Unlike Ageha, whose dignity and good faith in the face of great suffering frame him as a truly heroic and romantic supporting character, Asagi is small and petty and difficult to care about. But, like most of us, it’s Asagi’s weakness that is ultimately his undoing, and fortunately it’s undoing that Asagi needs most.
I said in the Basara roundtable that Asagi’s whole character could be essentially boiled down to a single desire: “to have someone—anyone—just one person love him best.” I do think that’s true, but it’s probably oversimplified. Yes, Asagi wants someone to love him, but perhaps more specifically, he wants someone to believe that he’s worthwhile. For all his arrogance, Asagi’s greatest weakness is his own self-esteem, which is so low and so twisted up by years of outside manipulation that when Sarasa does something really wacky like trust him with something important, it throws him completely for a loop.
That’s how you write a hero—in this case, Sarasa—and how you write a Draco Malfoy (or, in this case, Asagi). Let the hero take a freaking chance on him, in genuine good faith, and give him the thing he most needs in order to begin to believe in himself.
Asagi muses above on the fact that the fake Blue King (the “Serpent King”) had trusted him and wonders why this feels different. The difference of course, is that what he had with the Serpent King wasn’t trust at all. It was dependence, for sure, and perhaps some sense of loyalty, but the Serpent King didn’t so much trust him as need him, and that’s not the same thing. Like love, trust is something given freely and in good faith, and counting on someone because they’re bound to serve and protect you isn’t actually the same thing.
As the story goes on, Sarasa proves that her trust also comes with attentive care and affection. And I kinda love the fact that, here, she pretty much acknowledges straight out that he’s a delicate flower.
Asagi is nothing if not a master of self-deception, and he spends most of the series after he joins up with Tatara explaining carefully to anyone connected to the White King that he is definitely not starting to believe in Tatara or care about her or her cause. Meanwhile, he’s pretty definitely falling in love with her (or something that looks a hell of a lot like love) and learning what it’s like to actually have someone to protect whom he can trust to protect him in return.
It’s starting to sound a lot like I ‘ship Asagi with Sarasa (Tatara), isn’t it? And I’d be lying if I said it had never crossed my mind. After all, I ‘shipped Draco with Harry all those years, and that’s where I’ve been going with this entire post, haven’t I? The truth is, though, seeing where Asagi and Tatara’s relationship goes in Basara actually makes me think that I’d rather have seen Harry and Draco become real friends more than anything else. Because even if I occasionally harbored thoughts of Sarasa throwing over Shuri (who, let’s face it, isn’t all that much better a catch, at least not early on, and if she’s not going to fall for Ageha… well, there’s no helping her) for Asagi, and certainly that’s what Asagi would like to have happen, I think what Asagi needs more than anything is a friend—someone who won’t fall out of love with him or become complicated in any way—just a friend who can teach him what that even means. And Sarasa is so beautifully, perfectly that, I think it’s ultimately best for both of them.
The following is one of my favorite scenes in the entire series. It’s emotionally riveting, intense, and one of the best examples of why Tamura-sensei’s realization of this character is so much better than anything J.K. Rowling’s ever done. So much so, that I’m blown away every time I read it as though I’ve never seen it before in my life.
The emotional impact of that scene is only topped by this one, in which Tamura shows us Sarasa’s face and only the back of Asagi’s head for the entire exchange. And that back of the head says everything. It’s brilliantly drawn and precisely in tune with both their characters. Obviously there’s a lot more going on in an epic series like Basara besides a whole slew of intimacy porn between the heroine and one supporting character, but if you know me, you know that’s my fanservice.
I could go on and on. I would go on and on, but the truth is that I so hope that Viz will eventually be able to give this series a digital release, and I don’t want to give everything away (the scene leading up to the last few pages I shared here is one of the most intense and emotionally resonant of the series—and with this series, that’s saying a lot). Suffice it to say that with a character like Asagi, written by someone as thoughtful and brilliant as Yumi Tamura, things are going to be complicated all the way through the end.
Some part of me still wishes that J.K. Rowling had followed through on her promises for Draco. Another realizes that she never could have written him as well as did Yumi Tamura.