MJ: Good morning, Michelle! I greet you this morning, dizzy with the particular brand of glee that can only be brought on by epic shoujo fantasy. How about you?
MICHELLE: Much the same, actually! With a side of gratitude that the epic shoujo fantasy in question is a) completely available in English and b) in the process of becoming easier to obtain!
MJ: Indeed it is! And really, it is a dream come true. When manga publishers first began launching their various digital initiatives, one of the things many of us hoped for was that these venues would eventually become a platform for re-releasing out of print manga. In particular, I expressed a hope that we might see some of Viz Media’s “scads of fantastic 80s and 90s shoujo,” most of which has become difficult to obtain in print.
Fortunately, Viz seems to be on the same page, as they’ve recently begun releasing some of these older shoujo series in digital form! They began with one of my favorite series of all time, Saki Hiwatari’s 21-volume epic Please Save My Earth (volumes 1-6 are available now), originally serialized in Japan beginning in 1987, followed recently by three series from the early 1990s, Kaori Yuki’s Angel Sanctuary, Chie Shinohara’s Red River, and Kyoko Hikawa’s From Far Away. This week, Michelle and I decided to delve into the latter two of these series, whose first volumes are now available at both vizmanga.com and on Viz’s mobile apps.
Michelle, would you like to choose which we’ll discuss first?
MICHELLE: I’m inclined to save the best for last, which means that in my personal opinion, Red River should go first!
I actually own all of Red River in print, but had never read any of it ’til now. It has the distinction of being the final series in the now-defunct “shojo” imprint to reach completion. Though it starts off rated for older teens, I have a distinct memory of the later volumes being shrinkwrapped, so presumably sexy times will eventually ensue.
Anyway! Both of the series we’re going to discuss today involve a modern-day Japanese schoolgirl being transported to an unfamiliar environment. In the case of Red River, things are looking good for fifteen-year-old Yuri Suzuki. She has just passed the entrance exam for the high school of her choice and shared a first kiss with her good friend turned love interest, Satoshi. But on the evening of her family’s celebration dinner for her achievement (the exam, not the smooch), she begins to notice that water is acting strange around her. Soon, a pair of arms is reaching out to her from fish tanks and bath tubs, trying to pull her in. Though she manages to avoid water for a little while, she’s eventually captured via a puddle and transported to the Hittite Empire in 14th century B.C., where a scheming queen seeks to use her as a sacrifice to ensure that her son (currently sixth in line for the throne) becomes king.
MJ: Fortunately, Yuri quickly becomes acquainted with Kail, third son of the king and no friend to his stepmother, the scheming queen. Though he’s a notorious player (whose methods of “saving” Yuri generally involve pretending she’s his sexual conquest—something he’d clearly like to achieve in reality as well), Kail appears to be genuinely trustworthy, at least when his own life is on the line. Unfortunately, though Yuri is grateful for his protection, her desire to return to her own land drives her to recklessness, placing both her life and that of a devoted slave, Tito, in peril.
As it happens, I agree with your choice of which to discuss first (and why), which isn’t to say that I disliked Red River in the slightest. It’s immediately engaging and action-packed, with a relatable, plucky heroine and a fascinating historical setting. Even playboy Kail manages to be a genuinely attractive love interest, despite my weariness with his classic rake persona. What does weaken this story, however, is just how easy things are for Yuri, at least in this first volume.
While it may seem odd that I’d consider her path “easy” at this point—she has been marked for death, after all—there are some ways in which things really are inexplicably so. The issue of language, for instance, is immediately discarded, as Yuri finds she can suddenly understand the Hittite’s tongue simply by kissing Kail (insert inappropriate “tongue” joke here). Because of this, she’s able to grasp her situation immediately, including recognizing exactly where (and when) she is. Also, by being under Kail’s protection, she’s also suddenly a princess, with the ability to stop executions and generally direct people to do her bidding, which puts her in an immediate position of power, at least within Kail’s realm.
MICHELLE: Your last paragraph there neatly encapsulates my main criticism of Red River, though there are things about Kail that bother me, too. (I don’t think he’d follow through with the threat, but dialogue like “Now stop grousing or I’ll bed you for real” will never sit well with me.) It feels a little like Shinohara is squandering this rich environment and the potential for adventure in favor of romance. True, Yuri does end up in peril by the end, but it’s due to her impetuous, uninformed insistence on retrieving her clothes from the scheming queen and pretty much just a plot device designed to allow Kail to swoop in and save the day.
However! This series does run for 28 volumes, so I am willing to acknowledge that the story could move beyond its origins and go interesting, complicated places.
MJ: Wholeheartedly agreed! Despite my quibbles (and I do share your discomfort with Kail’s threats—hello, rape culture), 28 volumes of 90s shoujo fantasy is not something I can possibly reject, and my expectations are high!
MICHELLE: Of course, 14 volumes of shoujo fantasy is nothing to sniff at, either. Want to do the honors of introducing From Far Away?
MJ: I’d love to! Though half the length of Red River, Kyoko Hikawa’s From Far Away took several years longer to complete, running in Hakusensha’s LaLa magazine from 1993 to 2003. And if the first volume is any indication, this was time well-spent.
High school student Noriko has been experiencing a recurring dream set in a mysterious land filled with gorgeous landscapes and unfamiliar wildlife. As she walks home from school with her friends on one ordinary afternoon, television news anchors warn of a terrorist threat involving small bombs planted around the city by a recently captured suspect. While her friends hash out theories about Noriko’s dream—whether it’s a past life, a portal to another dimension, or pure fantasy fueled by Noriko’s sci-fi author dad—Noriko’s attention is drawn by a stray ball, leading her to an abandoned paper bag which explodes just as she approaches.
Though no trace is left of her body, Noriko is presumed dead. Meanwhile, Noriko has fallen into the same world she’s been dreaming about, where she is identified as “The Awakening,” a supernatural being prophesied to grant power over the legendary Sky Demon—the most destructive evil known in that world—to any nation that possesses it.
MICHELLE: Like Yuri, Noriko is fortunate enough to encounter a formidable ally right off the bat, though things are distinctly less easy for them. Izark might be a powerful warrior who saves Noriko from the political factions attempting to capture her (not to mention gigantic caterpillar things), but the language barrier prevents them from understanding one another and her fear and confusion seems to get on his nerves. Still, he’s unable to ignore her when she’s obviously upset and she comes to trust him. The non-verbal storytelling here is great, and I love that Noriko grows ashamed of her earlier behavior and starts trying to learn the language so that they may better communicate.
Despite being an imaginary fantasy world, the setting here feels more real than the Hittite setting in Red River, and has an abundance of the adventure feeling that I was missing in the other series.
MJ: My feelings exactly, Michelle, on all counts. And really, much of this story’s strength is due to the author’s inclination to prioritize adventure over romance, at least in the first volume. Though strong, roguish Izark is clearly leading man material by any shoujo fan’s standards, both he and Noriko are entirely focused on survival at this point in the story, with no romantic action to be found.
Another factor in From Far Away‘s success as fantasy-adventure is its overall complexity and sense of intrigue. While Red River‘s villain is firmly established from the beginning, things are less clear-cut in Noriko’s new world. With every nation competing for control over The Awakening, everyone is a potential enemy, and it’s not clear at all whom we should be rooting for—including Noriko herself! Though it seems fair to hope that our heroine can’t really be the harbinger of evil, it’s little more than a hope this early in the story, and Izark’s origins and intentions are even less clear. Furthermore, the series is already peppered with some extremely interesting supporting characters, including pint-sized seer Geena Haas, her mercenary father Agol, and a whole host of potential enemies who are aggressively hunting The Awakening.
Perhaps most telling is the fact that as soon as I finished From Far Away‘s first volume, I rushed to purchase the second. I suspect I’ll begin reading it the moment we’ve finish this column.
MICHELLE: I also wanted to immediately proceed to the second volume! I actually read and reviewed the first five volumes of From Far Away a little over three years ago, and though I no longer remember specifics, I remember feeling that it just kept getting better and better.
I do want to mention a couple of random thoughts. Something about the setting of this world—probably the huge insects and people standing whilst piloting flying craft/creatures—reminds me of Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, and it’s not a comparison in which From Far Away suffers. Too, I wonder if the story will take on a Life on Mars idea… like, is Noriko dead/injured in the present day or is she really experiencing all of this? Granted, it doesn’t seem at all like Hikawa plans to go in this direction, but what with the bombing and witnesses to Noriko’s disappearance, it makes me wonder.
MJ: I’ve been wondering that, too, Michelle! Unlike Yuri in Red River, Noriko really is assumed to be dead in her world—and reasonably so—which immediately puts her mortal status in question, and also raises questions about what place she’ll have back in her world if she really is alive and able to return. I also can’t help being curious about Noriko’s father, whose career as a science fiction writer just makes him… interesting. And potentially involved somehow? Who knows?
I think it’s pretty obvious that we find this series compelling.
MICHELLE I’d say so!
Of course, no column like this would be complete without me throwing in a plea for Basara to be the next out-of-print epic shoujo fantasy in VIZ’s catalog to receive the digital treatment.
MJ: I second that plea and add (predictably) Akimi Yoshida’s Banana Fish! Because, let’s face it, Yoshida’s New York is every bit the fantasy that is Tamura’s post-apocalyptic Japan. Bring ’em on, Viz!
Read Red River and From Far Away at vizmanga.com.
Estara saysMarch 23, 2013 at 3:30 pm
Indeed you did, Michelle, and I still keep hoping that you and/or Melinda will read all of the series and do a great review. To my mind it is one of the best fantasy shoujo series out there – Basara may be the gold standard, but if you consider that Kanata Kara has a somewhat smaller cast and is based more on intrigues than battles, although there is lots of action for Izark, heh – I personally think this is as epic. Here’s my ages old spoilery squee of the series at my original blog, which is basically defunct now.
Melinda Beasi saysMarch 23, 2013 at 3:42 pm
I’ll definitely be reading the entire thing, though since I missed it in print, I’ll be subject to the pace of Viz’s digital releases. :)
Estara saysMarch 23, 2013 at 7:57 pm
I’ll take whatever I can get. It’s such a shame this series got lost among the crowd. All the stuff I’ve read by Hikawa has been a sheer pleasure of its genre. Thankfully, in this case, there was a lot of loving scanlation work done beyond Kanata Kara. I would by far prefer to read any sort of licensed version, though.
Michelle Smith saysMarch 23, 2013 at 6:27 pm
As soon as we thought of this idea I thought, “Oohhh, I bet Estara is going to be our first comment!” :) Rereading volume 1 did indeed rekindle my desire to read the rest of the series. It’s just a time issue, since I don’t read very fast and have a bunch of other commitments.
Estara saysMarch 23, 2013 at 7:55 pm
“Oohhh, I bet Estara is going to be our first comment!” Hah, you know me SO WELL! ^^ – I live in hope that Melinda’s reading along to the digital releases will make you read beyond volume 5, hehe.
themooninautumn saysMarch 23, 2013 at 11:01 pm
Both excellent series, and Red River gets much more adventure-y, I promise. : )
Melinda Beasi saysMarch 24, 2013 at 10:18 pm
I look forward to finding out! :)
AshLynx saysMarch 24, 2013 at 4:46 pm
I just read From Far Away the other month (got it on eBay), it was a fantastic series and I think it only got better as it went on. And the ending was satisfying too, yay!
Unlike you guys though, I never questioned if she was really in the new world, I thought it was the “transported to another world” trope really straight up, like Escaflowne did.
While it may share a start more with Red River, I thought of it being actually closer to Basara-lite. I really wish Viz (or anyone) would publish more fantasy shojo, or were fantasy and scifi shojo an awesome fad in Japan that’s now over? Or am I not paying enough attention and missing things? I want epic fights and world traveling, like Basara and From Far Away had! That’s the sort of fantasy I want (not just be romance in a fantasy world), things that to some degree read half like a shonen.
Melinda Beasi saysMarch 24, 2013 at 10:26 pm
I totally agree (re: wanting more shoujo fantasy the likes of Basara and From Far Away). Though, to me, it’s really not about it reading like shounen at all. To me, that *is* girls’ fantasy. It’s like A Wrinkle in Time and The Chronicles of Narnia, and all the other YA books I loved growing up. I always wanted fantasy-adventure books and I think that’s absolutely a girls’ genre. (A boys’ genre too, sure, but when I was growing up, the kids eating that stuff up were pretty much always girls.)
AshLynx saysMarch 25, 2013 at 12:31 am
I like things that read where I can’t tell if they were specifically meant for girls or boys though. I think it’s why I like a lot of shonen written by women and for the most part, think they make the best ones (though Firefighter Daigo would stand to disagree with me). I’m out for good stories that don’t care who’s supposed to be reading/watching them, but rather to make everyone want to read/watch it regardless.
But I definitely feel like there aren’t any fantasy or scifi shojo made any more that aren’t just normal shojo romance in a fantasy or scifi setting if that makes sense. With Basara, the fighting and politics were epic! But the romance, as improbable as it was, was still awesome too. It’s not to say I don’t like romance shojo series, but I don’t like them nearly as much as the fantasy epics most of the time and I feel like it’s a dying genre.
I feel like the closest thing we’ve gotten lately, out of any country, was Legend of Korra. An especially rare for the US female action main, lots of awesome fight scenes, political scheming, and romance in there too! Though not much traveling (they were out to make it not feel like Aang’s series, so that’s apparently why the first season was set within just the one city). I really want more fantasy epics like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Korra too, but it’s like no country is willing to give it to me these days! I love ponies, but it’s mostly episodic. Actually, season 2 of Korra should be starting soon, yay! I also like Adventure Time a lot.
Estara saysMarch 25, 2013 at 12:39 pm
I can recommend two series to you, which you’ll also only find out of print, because both publishers are gone as such – but at least both were released to the end.
Tokyopop’s manga version of the third Suikoden game (which I thought had a very strong story anyway), Suikoden III: The Sucessor of Fate, drawn by Aki Shimizu.
And a classic shoujo mangaka of the fantasy vein with her only US release – Kyoko Shitou’s The Key to the Kingdom, published by CMX.
One currently releasing series that tends into the shoujo fantasy direction is Dawn of the Arcana, but the romantic subplot is as important as the political dangers. I would recommend Akatsuki Shirayukihime but that’s one manga we get in Germany and the US hasn’t licensed yet.
Estara saysMarch 25, 2013 at 1:14 pm
Oh, right – isn’t emanga.com rereleasing Planet Ladder by Yuri Narushima? Although that’s epic scifi… I did think it read a lot like fantasy, though.
Estara saysMarch 25, 2013 at 1:15 pm
I think the print version of that was also Tokyopop. It was also released in its entirety. It did take years to get the last book, though.
AshLynx saysMarch 25, 2013 at 2:22 pm
Thanks for the suggestions! I already have Suikoden III actually (the manga, not the game, but I have enough of an RPG backlog as is, so I don’t see playing the game in the immediate future), but it was quite good.
I’ve been looking for more input on Key to the Kingdom actually, anything you can add?
I read some of Young Magician by Yuri Narushima, but sadly did not enjoy it, was rather confused, so it kinda made me think twice about getting Planet Ladder. I do like scifi even more than fantasy though.
I am quite jealous of Germany’s manga selection, like Shin Angyo Onshi! I want it so bad! I can read some German, but I doubt enough to make getting them through Book Depository a good use of money.
I did think of another fantasy epic (with time travel this time) by a woman, Threads of Time. Though it’s a manhwa so I’m not sure what demographic it was for initially, but that one is really good too. It’s kinda more like historical fantasy in that the main is transported back in history, but I always say a good history manga will not expect me to actually know the history of the manga I am reading, and thank goodness Threads of Time did not (it explains it well enough through a small info drop of an historical war between Korea and the Mongols, but doesn’t expect me to know who the leaders were or what side won or anything. I am bad with history in that area of the world honestly). Also out of print by Tokyopop
Estara saysMarch 27, 2013 at 2:44 pm
Key to the Kingdom starts as a fairly simple quest story and then turns into much darker areas and has quite a tragic ending for some of the most interesting characters, but the worldbuilding and mythical history and the action is really pretty good for such a short series and epic fantasy. The artwork is an acquired taste, but I thought it worked.
starsamaria saysMarch 25, 2013 at 3:54 pm
I actually much prefer Red River, although I did still enjoy From Far Away. I love how intelligent and strong Yuri is, and I found I couldn’t get to the next volume fast enough. From Far Away, meanwhile, took longer for me to get into, and I never really cared for any of the side characters. And aside from having a more interesting cast, I love the historical aspect of Red River.
Sara K. saysMarch 25, 2013 at 11:27 pm
Red River actually inspired me to do some more reading on Hittite history. Turns out that Kail and the stepmother are both real historical figures, and they really were enemies (though based on what I’ve read in history books, I am actually more sympathetic to the stepmother – in history, not in the manga). However, Kail’s youngest son was the most interesting, as he wrote the oldest autobiography still extant. I even read part of his son’s autobiography (translated into English).
Sara K. saysMarch 25, 2013 at 11:31 pm
Actually, I should point out that most historians (that I read) are more sympathetic to the stepmother than to Kail, so that would obviously bias my opinion.