Basara Volumes 5 and 6

Basara Volume 5

As horrible as many people think the Red King is, the Blue King is clearly worse. People are starving in his lands, to the point where infanticide and suicide are common occurrences, sometimes at the same time. Sarasa and Shuri are captured by the Blue King’s most visible subordinate, a crafty captain of the King’s elite ninja/bodyguard squad. They’re placed in a holding cell with a bunch of other prisoners and forced to run an uneven race where the elites have horses and everybody else has to run on foot. The course is booby-trapped to an astonishing degree, and there can only be one winner of the race even if the semi-finalists are forced to kill each other. One of the things it is fun to observe is the way Shuri expresses the depths of his feelings for Sarasa. When one of the contestants asks if she’s Shuri’s girl, he replies “Someday she’ll be a woman the likes of you won’t even be able to address.” Which prompts the question “Is she going to be queen or something?”

Sarasa somehow ends up being able to inspire revolution wherever she goes, because when she sees the corrupt Blue King rooting for the slaves in the race to kill each other, she makes an impassioned speech. While the Blue King is unmoved by the words of someone he deems as his property, Shuri declares that she’s a good woman and proposes marriage if they manage to live. The Blue King decides to use Sarasa as a sacrifice in a bizarre ritual, while Shuri appears to die in an escape attempt. Of course, with over twenty volumes yet to go, he’s not actually dead. Sarasa is determined to bring down the Blue King, not as Tatara but as herself. Ageha in his guise as an androgynous dancing performer arrives in town, and he seems to know absolutely anyone who is anyone judging from a charged conversation he has with the Blue King’s Captain.

Sarasa befriends a local rebel leader, and he rallies the depressed subjects of the Blue King. Sarasa wonders if she’s started something that can’t be controlled, and he says “History brought you here. This may be a river we cannot swim against.” Shuri’s been alive and disguised the entire time, and he makes a move against his older brother. As the Blue King is destroyed the Captain of the Guards Asagi feels nostalgic for the death of his unwitting duplicate. Shuri and Sarasa are briefly reunited only to be torn apart by an inconveniently timed flash flood. Those flash floods, always interfering with young love!

Basara Volume 6

One of the nicest things about rereading a series that I was pretty much following from the beginning is that I’m able to go back and appreciate again some of the details I’ve forgotten. I’d forgotten how great Ageha was in these earlier volumes. He’s so enigmatic and merciless, yet the reader assumes he’s going to be taking action to support Sarasa at some point. When Asagi decides that he’s going to go undercover in Tatara’s organization and manipulate everybody there like puppets, Ageha silently hears all of his plans and says nothing to Sarasa because if she gets fooled by Asagi, she’s not worthy of being the “boy of destiny.” Asagi just keeps hugging Ageha, declaring that he’s the only one who understands him, while Ageha silently muses that “There will always be a destroyer at the boundary of a new age…Now it’s getting interesting.”

When Asagi and Shuri confront each other, Shuri’s internal poor little rich boy tendencies are in full force. When Shuri hears that Asagi’s mother protected her son from his father by sending him away to be raised and swapping in a changeling baby in his place, he thinks about how his own mother never made an elaborate attempt to protect him. Asagi assumes the pose of an abused servant of the Blue King and immediately gets to work making everyone who supports Tatara start being suspicious of their young leader. Hayato is particularly susceptible to Asagi’s insinuations. While Sarasa doesn’t trust Asagi at all, she plays into his plot by being secretive about her plans to go off on her own to rescue her mother from General Kazan. Asagi’s entrance to the story as a foil for Shuri and Sarasa means that Basara will keep being interesting from a more cerebral standpoint as opposed to fights that are only determined on the battlefield. Asagi’s intercepting secret letters between the lovers, sending out mystical spies, and generally being evil. While Sarasa doesn’t trust him, she hasn’t yet uncovered the truth behind his manipulations.

Basara Volumes 3-4 by Yumi Tamura

I continue my rereading adventure through the delightfully epic manga Basara. There are female pirates, evil kings, and death races to look forward to! I’ll keep referring to Sarasa under her own name when discussing her internal thoughts, and as Tatara when people are reacting to her male disguise.

Basara Volume 3

Sarasa is continuing her semi-solitary quest, determined to succeed without the support of the villagers who she has sworn to protect. When she reaches the region where Suzaku village should be, she finds out that the village has sunk to the bottom of the sea. Instead she encounters rival pirates and an unexpected role model. Chacha has her own ship and when she captures the famous “boy of destiny” Tatara she promptly challenges him to a drinking game for his freedom. Sarasa gives it a try, but find an unexpected pinch hitter among Chacha’s crew to continue the contest. Kaku (Sarasa’s village adviser) drinks himself into a stupor in an attempt to help. Chacha is impressed with the loyalty that Tatara seems to inspire while Sarasa concludes after seeing Chacha “seeing a strong woman reminds me of what I should be.”

Sarasa vows to help her new pirate friends against the evil Shojo clan, and finds herself committed to a one-man mission where she has to steal a cannon and return to her companions quickly where they are pinned down in a race against the ocean tides. One of the things that I find admirable about Sarasa as a character is that she keeps moving forward even when to all outward appearances she is clearly over her head. While she might have internal doubts, she doesn’t spend too much time hesitating if it is clear that she has to take some sort of action. She’s rewarded by some strange quirks of fate, to the point where the reader begins to wonder if the land of Japan itself might be rooting for change in the form of Tatara. Tamura weaves together multiple storylines effortlessly, as while Tatara is battling on the high seas, Shuri deals with diplomatic intrusion from abroad in an explosive fashion and Shuri’s right hand man Shido is headed out to hunt for Tatara despite the tears of the new wife he is leaving behind.

Basara Volume 4

The fourth volume shows Sarasa wondering about the changes in her personality as she observes her enemies and thinks that she has the power to annihilate them. She wonders “When did I get so heartless? When did I start thinking like this?” The cost of war suddenly becomes more personal when she finds out that Shido and his men have captured Ageha. Seeing Ageha the former slave with his old master fills in details about his personality for the reader. Ageha knows he’s going to be used at bait to draw Tatara out, but he doesn’t stop taking the opportunity to needle Shido whenever possible, asking “Have you ever wondered between you and Tatara which of you is moving with the flow of history? Which has been chosen and which is fated to become obsolete?” Shido has unbreakable faith in Shuri the Red King, but it is clear that he’s been headed for tragedy from the moment of his introduction. Sarasa and Hayato head out to rescue Ageha and succeed against impossible odds yet again. While war on the high seas wasn’t particularly bloody, Shido’s death is both graphic and emotional as he realizes the truth of Sarasa and Shuri’s relationship and their false identities towards each other, thinking “They love each other, and they don’t know!” Ageha is both bitterly triumphant and sorrowful when his old master dies. Hayato struggles with his actions even though he essentially saved Tatara’s life.

Scarred by death, Sarasa and Shuri seek each other out. Shuri is facing a new threat in the form of his brother the Blue King and wants to scout out the situation while at the same time the Blue King has proposed an alliance with Tatara. It is the height of tragic irony that the only times Sarasa and Shuri can feel like they are being themselves is when they are together, unknowingly lying to each other but still finding a moment of respite in knowing someone who is unaware of the burdens of leadership and war that they both have to deal with. Tamura is great at creating dramatic tension because just as the reader wants to root for Sarasa and Shuri to get together and live happily ever after, it is easy to see that Tatara and the Red King are heading towards a potentially fatal confrontation.

Basara Volumes 1 and 2

When I write manga reviews for this blog, sometimes I feel like I get stuck reading only new volumes. Which is fine, because there’s plenty of exciting new manga coming out these days. But I don’t often take the luxury of time to go back and reread some of my favorite completed series, and there are plenty of manga series that I’ve enjoyed but not necessarily written about all that extensively. So I’ve added a new category of Reread Reviews for series that have come out some time ago but I feel still deserve plenty of attention. I thought I’d start this new feature by working my way through one of my favorite series, Yumi Tamura’s Basara.

Viz started releasing Basara in 2003, and as a result some volumes are out of print or hard to find. But this is one of those series that is well worth collecting, because even though it is long at 27 volumes, this is one of the few series that I think actually deserves all that space. Tamura creates an epic adventure story with star-crossed lovers, cross-dressing, fierce battles, and political revolution in a post apocalyptic Japan. Even though this series is on the long side so much happens in each volume. I never felt like I was reading filler stories or being subjected to recursive battle scenes when reading this manga.

Basara Volume 1 by Yumi Tamura

Like the best adventure stories, Basara starts by introducing the heroine in the context of her home and family and then systematically strips everything away, forcing her to rise to the occasion and assert her true self. Sarasa was born with a twin brother named Tatara, and at their birth a prophet proclaimed “This is a child of destiny…one who will grow to lead the people and be the light in the sky of our nation’s future.” The people in Sarasa’s village are a rebellious group in a post-apocalyptic Japan that has been broken up into areas ruled by petty feudal kings. Everyone assumes that Tatara will be the leader of the next revolution, and Sarasa is shunted aside since she’s a girl. She’s introduced to the reader first as a young spirited tomboy who is acutely aware of the differences between the way she and her brother are treated. She’s heedless of her own safety, heading out to the desert when everyone celebrates her brother’s birthday and ignores her. She makes the mistake of crossing a column of troops headed by the cruel Red King and her life is saved only when a desert nomad named Ageha insinuates himself into the situation, losing an eye in the process. When Sarasa gets back to her village she finds out that the Red King’s army has struck there, killing her childhood friend who identified himself as Tatara in order to save the real “Boy of Destiny.”

The Red Army returns to the village again, and this time Sarasa’s brother is killed. She’s paralyzed with fear but remembers that her brother asked her to protect the villagers if he was gone. She cuts her hair, yells that her sister is dead and orders the villagers to follow her in order to save their own lives. While Sarasa’s ingenuity allows her to rescue her village’s sacred sword from the Red Army, her next attempt at battle fails and she’s cut off from her people. Determined to rally more people to her brother’s cause, Sarasa strikes out towards another rebel village. The Red King is shown throughout the volume with his face slightly obscured. He’s covered by a helmet or his face is partially shadowed or cut off by the borders of a panel. He’s a pragmatic ruler determined to hold on to his territory despite the manipulations of his family. Sarasa meets an arrogant and rich young man named Shuri when she’s visiting a hot springs, and they feel an instant attraction to each other. When Sarasa sees Shuri for the first time, it is also the first time the reader has seen the entire face of the Red King.

Basara Volume 2 by Yumi Tamura

The second volume of Basara shows Sarasa preparing herself to be a rebel leader and not having much time for the young man she keeps running into as she follows the path of the Red King on her way to Sakurajima to locate allies. She visits the city where the Red King lives and is struck by the riches there in contrast to the way her people live. She falls in with a group of traveling show people, who are anchored by a glamorous woman with a bejeweled eyepatch who happens to be Ageha in disguise. Ageha exhibits a sort of watchful antagonism to Sarasa. He’s suspicious that Tatara really is the boy of destiny who will bring revolution to the land, but he’s occasionally helpful. Sarasa as Tatara disguises herself as a dancing girl and slips out of the city into even greater danger in the form of a decrepit tunnel that leads to Kyushu. In the tunnel Sarasa faces a classic hero’s test where she can only call upon herself to get out of a dangerous situation, and she succeeds in reaching the other side, but not before she manages to finally bond with her late brother’s horse Yato. She also has a fateful encounter with a prisoner trapped in the tunnel who gives her valuable information about the rebel village she’s questing for.

Sarasa begins to understand the political nature of rebel leadership when she meets a young boy claiming to be Tatara who is rallying people to rebel against their local lord. It turns out he’s being blackmailed to identify potential rabble rousers in his region. Sarasa is shrewd, keeping quiet about who she is until she has a full grasp of the situation. The boy Hayato ends up attaching himself to Tatara as his new right hand man. In just a couple volumes Tamura has introduced characters on both sides of the Red King/Tatara war and managed to make each side sympathetic for different reasons. Shuri is shown growing up as a young boy with a sociopath for a father who brands his own son with a slave’s mark. Shuri is about to dispatch his cousin Shido to go after Tatara, but Shido is leaving his fiancee behind when he goes on his mission. Shuri and Shido see Ageha (the former slave of Shido’s family) tortured in an attempt to give up Tatara’s location.

Tamura’s art style might take a bit of getting used to. Her men have a tendency towards triangle face, with eyes that sometimes look like horizontal slits. But she varies her character designs quite a bit, making it easy for the reader to keep track of the cast of Basara even though it seems to expand with every volume. Sarasa has covered a lot of ground in the first two volumes of Basara in both her physical and internal journey. Tamura is moving all the pieces together to tell an epic story, and I’m entertained all over again when I’m rereading this series.