The Water Dragon’s Bride, Vol. 6

The Water Dragon’s Bride Volume 6 by Rei Toma

One would not normally expect a fantasy series about a girl from modern day Japan falling through worlds to end up in a quasi-medieval land where the lives of humans revolve around appeasing gods to contain a dense philosophical exploration of what it means to be human, with a side meditation on man’s inhumanity to man, but that’s exactly what the reader gets in The Water Dragon’s Bride. Toma’s masterful storytelling is on full display in the 6th volume, where there’s a dramatic emotional breakthrough with Asahi and her Water Dragon God.

All along the Water Dragon God has been transformed bit by bit due to his close exposure to humans. He doesn’t exactly understand humanity yet, but he’s a great deal more sensitive and caring than the person he was in the first volume who just sat back and let a young Asahi starve to death because the concept of providing food did not occur to him. When the Water Dragon God continues to see that the other humans are going to still persist in trying to control Asahi due to her standing as priestess, he decides that she can’t remain in the human world, and she needs to exist by his side with no more pain. The solution the Water Dragon God hits on is to trap Asagi in a bubble in his world, where she experiences a day of her being a normal high school girl with Subaru over and over again until she begins to sense that something is wrong with her fake new existence. I’m always in awe at what Toma can do with her minimalist yet highly effective approach to illustration. Seeing Asagi trapped in her bubble in the world of the Gods while they discuss her is visually arresting, as the formless world is intercut with scenes of the dream in modern Japan that Asagi slowly realizes is not real.

The power dynamic between Asagi and the Water Dragon God is so unequal, but she manages to break his spell, raising a question about how much power she actually has over him. So much of this volume is expressed through the internal thoughts of the characters, with brief dialog that evokes all of the unsaid emotions as seen Asagi and the Water Dragon God share a “Good Morning” greeting after she breaks out of her water bubble. He decides after his attempt to trap Asagi in a dream that he will set things back on their original path, but can Asagi really go home again after everything she’s experienced? I’m genuinely not sure what to expect from this series next, which makes it such a pleasure to read.

Water Dragon’s Bride Vol. 4

Water Dragon’s Bride Volume 4 by Rei Toma

One of the reasons why this manga is so fun to read is that each volume starts out with a slight change in circumstances for the characters. In volume 4 the Water Dragon is now undercover as a human, and Asahi is looking at him as a odd experimental subject, as she teases him into eating human food, even though it isn’t going to have an effect on him. Subaru is a bit creeped out by this new arrangement, but still determined to serve as Asahi’s human protector.

As Asahi completes her yearly ritual, she requests that the Water Dragon God take her and Subaru on a trip during her usual three days of disappearance after the ritual is completed. One of the areas on narrative tension in this series is contrasting the Water Dragon God’s basic inhumanity with the inhumane behavior of humans to each other. When the trio travel to a distant country that happens to be under threat from a natural disaster, the villages there try to offer up a girl as a sacrifice. Asahi can’t get the Water Dragon God to intervene, so she offers herself up as a substitute. She relies on her power to make it rain when she cries to fend off the threatening fire.

Asahi’s powers end up placing her in a priestess role again, and she has to intervene in an outbreak of illness and contend with the local boy emperor. Toma’s illustrations, which often contain little to no backgrounds when the characters are experiencing emotional turmoil, help the reader appreciate the symbolic and otherworldly nature of the situations Asahi finds herself in. Asahi attempts to shield Subaru from her intense sadness, but he understands what she’s trying to hide from him. The Water Dragon God gradually seems to be taking on more human emotions, so it will be interesting to see how his personality continues to evolve, and if Asahi will ever be able to find her way home.

Water Dragon’s Bride, Vol. 3

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.

Water Dragon’s Bride, Vol. 2

The Water Dragon’s Bride, Volume 2 by Rei Toma

The first volume of Water Dragon’s Bride was surprisingly dark, which made it feel quite a bit refreshing as it was quite a tonal shift from the usual shoujo fantasy fare. The second volume wasn’t quite as dark in theme, but it was still quite absorbing, ensuring that this series is rapidly becoming a current favorite of mine.

Modern girl Asahi finds herself transported to another world where she ends up being brutalized by humans, offered up as a sacrifice to the Water Dragon God, and almost starves to death due to the Water Dragon’s utter incomprehension of human frailty. Her one ally is Subaru, a village boy with a scheming and overbearing mother. The Water Dragon appears and heals Asahi from her injuries as she is recuperating in the village. Asahi has a few normal hours where she attempts to communicate while being robbed of speech and she is able to enjoy the outdoors a little bit.

The Water Dragon begins to exhibit some gradual signs of change with the mild protectiveness he exhibits towards Asahi. He becomes angry at the human villagers and finds the rituals and stories they’ve made up about him ridiculous, but he still has no idea how easily breakable humans are, causing yet another accident to Asahi and Subaru as he gets caught up in rage. Asahi is left to care for Subru on his own when he’s injured and she ends up being incredibly resourceful even when she is helped along a little bit by the gods who seem to regard her as a pet project.

Asahi’s situation stabalizes somewhat, as she’s given the role of a priestess and a caretaker. The Water Dragon decided to wait to claim his bride until she’s older and the last few pages give a glimpse of Asahi and Subaru much older, giving a hint to the next story arc. The art on The Water Dragon’s Bride continues to be delightful, and I’m still in awe of Toma’s deceptively simple illustration style. The art isn’t overdecorated, but she manages to portray everything she needs with great economy. It is always clear what Asahi is thinking, even when she’s robbed of the power of speech. The character designs for the pantheon of gods that keep popping in and out to offer sly commentary on the Water Dragon’s inexplicable choices are also charming. My only complaint is that there’s too much of a wait between volumes for this series!

The Water Dragon’s Bride, Vol. 1

The Water Dragon’s Bride Volume 1 by Rei Toma

I remember being delighted when I heard that another Rei Toma title was going to be released by Viz. Then many months passed between the announcement and actually getting the volume in my hand, I totally forgot about it and then was delighted all over again! I do enjoy fantasy manga and this volume was an excellent start to the series.

Asahi is a modern girl who has the misfortune of standing too close to a pond, where she is promptly whisked away to a village with no technology whose inhabitants don’t quite know what to make of her. A young boy named Subaru stumbles across Asahi and takes her home despite his sister’s protests. Unfortunately the village has a habit of offering up human sacrifices to the Water Dragon, and when Subaru brings home his new friend his mother decides that the odd girl will be a great way to ensure the prosperity of her family. Asahi is a bit stunned by being catapulted into another world and she doesn’t realize that she’s going to be a sacrifice until it is too late. Subaru tries to prevent the ritual but is unable to do anything to save his new friend.

Asahi finds herself in the Water Dragon’s realm. He’s a cold, stoic sort of god who says that he’ll wait to make Asahi his bride until she grows up. She asks him if he’s wearing cosplay and accuses him of being a pervert. The Water Dragon seems to find Asahi mildly entertaining, but he takes away her voice and then sits calmly while she starts to starve. Asahi finally realizes that the world she’s lost in is horrible. Other gods intervene to see some drama when Subaru and Asahi are reunited, but the humans in Subaru’s village prove to be even more terrible than the gods.

I think that Toma’s art, which was always good, has improved since Dawn of the Arcana. Her clear and simple style does a great job highlighting all the variants in facial expressions and reactions as the characters deal with the extraordinary. Subaru’s mother shows hints of evil in her smirk, and then devolves into full-out evil as she takes on the role of putting Asahi to trial for being rejected by the gods. Asahi’s personality is inherently bubbly and open, and it takes her a while to realize the truth of the world that she’s found herself in. Her body language completely changes after meeting the Water Dragon and the villagers. There aren’t a lot of detailed backgrounds in this manga, but the absence of setting is used to great effect when Asahi is in the Water Dragon’s world because the lack of detail in Asahi’s surroundings just makes everything seem even more surreal.

The inhumanity of the humans and the possibility that a god might change due to having to take care of a small girl are interesting themes for this manga to explore. This is a solid shoujo fantasy title and I strongly recommended it for fans of the genre.