Two boys, two lives, one destiny.
There are just some manga-ka (manga artists) whose names are automatically associated with great art and a good, if not fantastic, story. One of those greats is Yuu Watase, my personal favorite, and she’s proven that she’s still quite busy since her claim to fame title “Fushigi Yuugi.” With “Fushigi Yuugi Genbu Kaiden” on hiatus and other smaller stories like “Imadoki,” “Absolute Boyfriend” and “Alice 19th” long since wrapped up, she now presents us with a new story to gnaw on while she continues other projects. “Arata: The Legend” is very much in a similar vein of self-discovery stories that have been her recent works, and even in the afterward she plainly states that she wanted to “write about a boy’s journey.” (Hence its serialization in Shonen Sunday.)
Arata is a fairly carefree boy and grandson to the elder of the Hime Clan, who is responsible for producing the princesses that govern the country with her Twelve Shinsho. The current princess, Princess Kikuri, has already reigned for two terms because the Hime Clan has been unable to produce a female heir to replace her. The time is approaching for the ceremony to take place, and facing the facts that Arata’s grandmother put him down as a female on his birth certificate, Arata must do some gender-bending and dress up as a woman for the sake of his Clan’s safety and his grandmother. However, what the poor kid doesn’t know is that the Twelve Shinsho are planning a revolution and attack the Princess during the ceremony as she’s about to transfer her powers to Arata. As is the way of things, Arata is framed and flees the capital for his life and into a mysterious forest that likes to eat people meandering into it on occasion.
Now enters the real main character, Arata Hinohara. He’s a quiet school boy in modern-day Japan who is trying to overcome bullying by going to a new school to make a fresh start. That is, it would be a fresh start if his middle-school bully hadn’t decided to go to the same high school. Then, his school days become a hellish downward spiral and the crushing blow comes when his one friend he thought he’d made turns on him like everyone else. On his way home, he takes a turn down an alley and suddenly finds himself in the original Arata’s world. According to legend about the forest, he has literally emerged a different person. But everyone can only see him as Arata, and the same is said for his black-haired counterpart. He escapes pursuit momentarily with the help of Arata #1’s retainer, Kotoha. From there on out, Arata #2 does his best to convince everyone of this fantasy world that he is not their Arata, and only when he inadvertently commands the power of the Hime Clan’s goshintai—a sword that embodies the power of a god—that Arata #1’s granny comes to terms with the fact that he’s telling the truth. Things only get further and further complicated for Arata, and in his home world Arata #1 is on his way to get his head checked! No matter how you look at it, it just sucks to be Arata—either of them.
If you’re hoping for the same elaborate scenes and lush backgrounds that “Fushigi Yuugi” had, you’re looking on the wrong place. There are some fantastically detailed scenes throughout the book, but Yuu Watase has simplified her art over the years; something her assistants probably find to be a great mercy. But fear not, even though it is technically a shonen title there are plenty of pretty boys and men for fujoshi fodder. Watase also devotes a few pages at the end of the volume for her assistants to have a little fun and doodle their own short comics, which prove to be amusing enough and interesting little insights and the collective talents behind the manga.
While it’s likely not going to be the epic that the “Fushigi Yuugi” titles are, “Arata” holds a lot of promise to be a cut above the norm in both story and art. It’s interesting to see how Arata Hinohara deals with his new position and it’s going to be doubly interesting to see how Arata #1 handles the school bullies in the following volumes. Volume one might be off to a slightly slow start, though there’s enough action to sate the shonen side of the board, it’s merely a precursor to what will come later in the story as more of the Twelve Shinsho are introduced and to see how each Arata will grow and learn from their circumstances. If you’re already a Watase fan, then it goes without saying this title is a must-have for your collection. If you’re not, and you don’t give a rat’s arse about “Fushigi Yuugi” or any of that girly fluff, then this will be a decent enough introduction to her work and an interesting story to start off on.