Manga Review: F


Author: Yuu Watase

Manga genre: Shojo/Shonen (No, really!)

Number of volumes: 12

Still in print? Yes.

Rarely is a sequel or prequel better than the original, but Fushigi Yugi: Genbu Kaiden is one such magical unicorn. In terms of continuity, this series takes place before the original Fushigi Yugi series; the manga that made Yuu Watase famous in the early 1990’s. Fushigi Yugi hinged on a friendship gone sour between two high-school girls; and it was a romantic comedy in a fantasy setting. However, in the very first volume of this manga, Watase herself said that “Genbu” would be a more mature tale. The fantasy world of the story is embroiled in a terrible war. Some characters are hurt, some characters will die. And while the heroine may carry the key to magically solve all their problems, her magic carries a hefty price-tag.

The story opens in 1923, in Morioka. The main character Okuda Takiko, is a genuinely likeable heroine, a feisty girl in a male-dominated world. Takiko is not at all afraid to stand up for herself when the other girls at her school try to bully her. She chases down a pick-pocket on a “borrowed” bicycle. And she’s taking lessons with the naginata, a traditional Japanese curved-blade spear, so she can defend herself, too. In fact, when she first meets the hero, she tries to defend him. This is a damsel who can’t be bothered to wait for a rescuer. Takiko literally relies on no-one; because she can’t afford to – in between her studies, she’s running her household and nursing her mother, who is slowly succumbing to tuberculosis. Meanwhile, Takiko’s father has become increasingly withdrawn, escaping into his work to avoid dealing with reality. He’s a famous novelist, and he’s become obsessed with translating a mysterious Chinese document called “The Universe of the Four Gods”. When Takiko has finally had enough of his selfishness, she snatches the manuscript out of her father’s hand, and tries to rip it up.

A beam of silver light appears, and Takiko is absorbed into the book. She finds herself in the frozen mountains of Bei-Jia, by a post where a girl her own age has been chained up and left to the elements. And as the story progresses, her father’s handwritten translation changes, so that he – and the reader – is reading along from “our” world as everything happens. As literary devices go, you have to admit this one is pretty neat. While inside the world of the book, Takiko learns that she is the priestess of Genbu, one of the four gods. The legendary girl from another world who will gather seven celestial warriors, and save Bei-Jia when the country is on the verge of collapse. A priestess is given three wishes, which her god must fulfil – but the price, they say, is the priestess’ life.

Takiko, with her knowledge of modern-day science, soon realises that the Universe of the Four Gods is entering an ice age. And that she is the only one who can summon Genbu and ask him to bring an end to the winter, before his people starve to death. However, the endless winter isn’t the only danger – the neighbouring Qu-Dong Empire has set out to conquer Bei-Jia, and its forces are slowly working their way through the remote villages and border towns.

But, first things first. In order to summon Genbu, Takiko needs to find all seven of the celestial warriors first – and some of them are hiding in the unlikeliest places. Some of their powers are also quite unusual – there’s Hatsui, for instance, whose power manifests as thousands of tiny needles. A plump and nervous boy who’s been bullied and exploited, he generates a cage of needles around himself, too, literally to stop himself from getting hurt. And then there’s Namame, who’s literally made of stone.

Namame can make himself any size he wants. When we first meet him, he’s a stone giant, but as soon as Takiko gains his trust, he takes on the size of a doll, tiny enough to ride on her shoulder. But perhaps the most important of all the warriors is Uruki, Takiko’s love interest. Uruki can change genders at will – which he off-handedly describes as “a personal quirk”. And, in a classic hard-fantasy Catch 22, where every power must come with a price, Uruki can only use his “wind-slasher” power when he’s in female form. Here is the thing, though – he doesn’t mind becoming a she. Male or female, Uruki is still the same Uruki. Sneaking a gender-fluid character into a mainstream manga and having them fall mutually in love with the main character is a pretty brassy move, but Watase carries it off beautifully.

This series ran in four different manga anthologies, and took ten years to finish. But when you read it, you can’t tell – the story still flows as smoothly, and the art stays remarkably consistent. (Not to mention that it is beautiful, and that insane amounts of research have obviously gone into everything from the costume designs to the weapons.) Probably the main difference is that the fight scenes gradually become more dynamic. During the decade it took her to make Genbu Kaiden, Watase was making the transition from drawing shojo manga to drawing Arata: The Legend for the boys’ magazine Weekly Shonen Sunday. This may well have influenced Genbu Kaiden a bit. The tone of the series also gets more and more serious as the plot hurtles towards its grand finale, and there is less space for the sweet, silly humour that used to offset the drama in the earlier volumes.

So, to summarize: Genbu Kaiden is sort of the “Phantom Menace” to the original Fushigi Yugi… with the notable difference that “Genbu Kaiden” is amazing. And you should go read it, because even if it ends up breaking your heart a little, it will break your heart in a good way.