When manga publishers first started their digital programs I was hoping for more backlist titles to become available, especially from Viz. I was particularly happy when Red River started coming out in a digital edition. I’ve long regretted not just buying this series when it was coming out, because I suspected I would really like it. At the time though I was buying a ton of other manga and I was leery of committing to a 28 volume shoujo series. I’ve been piecing together volumes of this series here and there, and I have a decent amount of both the first several books and a few concluding volumes, but nothing in the middle. I was glad I could switch back and forth between print volumes and my iPad to give the first part of this series a try. The arresting cover image of the first volume provides a nice overview of the series. A girl in modern clothing is being menaced by a bunch of people holding daggers, against a backdrop of a blue sky and stone buildings from another era.
The girl who is about to get stabbed on the cover of Red River is Yuri, a cheerful high school student who had just received her first kiss from her classmate Satoshi. Yuri goes to school and hangs out with her younger sisters, but a number of odd things seem to happen when she’s close to water. A glass bubbles over and hands reach out to her from a school fishtank. The incidents get worse and worse, to the point where Yuri is carried away in the middle of a date when she steps near a puddle. Yuri finds herself in a bathhouse in the capitol of the Hittite empire. Chased by armed men whose language she doesn’t understand, Yuri runs into a courtyard and encounters a handsome man who promptly sweeps her off her feet and kisses her. Prince Kail distracts the men and sends them on their way, claiming he knows nothing about a woman in strange clothing running through the city. Yuri can suddenly understand the language of the place she’s in, as princely kisses seem to serve as a universal translation device. Kail offers to swap Yuri in for the woman he was originally waiting for. Yuri concludes that he’s a jerk and runs off in the strange city yet again, only to be captured by Kail’s extremely evil stepmother.
Kail’s evil stepmother wants to use Yuri for a virgin sacrifice to work some strange magic to place her son as heir to the empire instead of Kail. Kail is an extremely quick thinker and prevents the sacrifice by showing up at the last minute to announce that due to his masterful powers of seduction, Yuri is no longer a virgin, and thus not suitable to be a sacrifice to anyone. Throwing her over his shoulder, Kail announces that he’s going to remove his “sullied baggage” from the room. Kail and Yuri start gradually falling in love, as he begins to appreciate her articulated moral sense and intelligence. Yuri soon realizes that Kail is doing the best he can in an extremely hostile court environment where his stepmother is doing whatever she can to plot his demise.
While there are a few references to magic here and there, Red River is much more of a historical adventure than it is a fantasy story. Yuri doesn’t really have magical powers, but she might as well have them due to the effect she has when Kail decides to announce that she’s the incarnation of the goddess Ishtar and uses her to inspire his troops as a gambit to protect her from his stepmother. While Kail gives Yuri the position of his concubine and they sleep in the same bed every night, she still remains a virgin, since he backs off when she mentions her boyfriend back home. The “will they or won’t they” tension that appears in the first few volumes is mainly due to Kail keeping his distance from Yuri because he knows he needs to send her back to his own time, and Yuri is determined not to care for Kail too much when she has to go back to her family.
While Yuri seems to have an unfortunate habit of getting kidnapped fairly often, she’s also extremely level-headed and pragmatic. Kail rescues her, but she also uses some quick thinking to rescue him a number of times. She throws herself into training when she’s given the role of Ishtar to play, determined not to embarrass herself and Kail. When she’s stolen away by a prince from a rival country, she spends her time improving the sickroom for prisoners of war that are deemed near death, and her introduction of modern sanitation helps the prisoners heal as well as providing herself with a slightly sick troop of soldiers inside the enemy walls.
Shinohara’s art has a bit of an old-school feel to it. This series was first published in 1995, so the character designs might look a tad old fashioned. But the many action scenes and the historical settings and costumes are handled with great clarity. Even when the paneling might focus more on the character’s emotions and interactions, there’s usually an architectural detail or background element that grounds the reader in the scene. Yuri believably shifts from tomboy to gorgeous depending on the situation and clothing she finds herself in, and Kail transforms from a slightly arrogant prince to a person who is much more kind and concerned.
I read these volumes over the weekend, and was very entertained! I think Red River is one of those series that benefits from being able to read many volumes at once, because the story lines are fast-paced and interesting, with plenty of cliff-hangers at the end of most volumes. While Red River is certainly a romance, it focuses much more on the expansion of the Hittite empire and the political machinations of the royal family. Yuri and Kail are a sympathetic couple, even if some of their issues would be solved if they were only able to sit down and have an honest conversation about their feelings. Fending off witchy evil stepmothers, dodging kidnappings, and dealing with bronze age military tactics do take up quite a bit of time. One thing I did miss in these volumes was author’s notes. I don’t know if there just weren’t any attached to this series, or if there was a decision made not to include them, but I would have found it interesting to hear about the author’s research. It seems like most of the historical shoujo manga that gets translated for English audiences tends to focus more on Japan as a setting, so Red River is certainly unique in that aspect. While there’s certainly enough romance to keep most shoujo fans happy, the setting and emphasis on action and adventure make this a very appealing series for readers.