The Water Dragon’s Bride, Volume 3 by Rei Toma
The story in The Water Dragon’s Bride has been unfolding at a measured pace, in the third volume Asahi and Subaru are almost all grown up. As they become more adults, this results in some increased tension with Asahi’s eventual destiny as the bride of the Water Dragon as well as her role as priestess for Subaru’s village.
The volume opens with a little bit of backstory showing Asahi filing her role of priestess as she moves through adolescence. Every year, there’s a ritual designed to gain the favor of the water god, and Asahi disappears under the waves for three days. Her encounters with the water god are first limited to staring, glaring, and finally smiling. The elemental gods still are fundamentally alien when compared with humans. The Water Dragon at least has figured out that he needs to feed his young human bride, so he calls over the Tree God to give her some supplies. I enjoyed seeing these visits from the perspective of both the Water Dragon and Asahi.
I think a lot about clarity of art when I read a Rei Toma series, but I’m always struck by how much she is able to do with simple character designs and sparse backgrounds. It is expected that expressive eyes count for a great deal in shoujo manga, but she’s able to convey so much in just a couple pages. Subaru, aware that both his mother and his sister are prejudiced against Asahi, turns away from his family thinking “…don’t disappoint me more any than this.” His face is half in shadow, and blank in a way that shows he’s hiding the tension and disgust he feels inside. As he walks away he smiles and waves. All of this is accomplished with just one line of dialogue and some great sequencing and paneling from Toma in a two page spread.
For a series with such lovely illustrations and a seemingly fantastic premise, one of the reasons why I enjoy The Water Dragon’s Bride is that it explores some dark territory, particularly focusing on the way humans are capable of great cruelty. While the first volume also lingered on Asahi’s inhumane treatment by the Water Dragon who was absolutely ignorant and uncaring of the ways humans can suffer, humans seem like the real source of evil in the world. In addition to the leering gazes and jealously in Subaru’s village that Asahi has to isolate herself from, her capabilities as a priestess attract the attention of a neighboring village and a war is launched. Watching these events with Asahi, the Water Dragon thinks all the humans are fools.
While for most of this volume Asahi seems to be placed in a Persephone role, going back and forth between water and the human world, there’s a narrative turn as Water Dragon decides to dwell with humans for a time. Toma is able to pack an incredible amount of story in a single volume of manga, making this a shoujo fantasy series that is extremely rewarding to the reader.