Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Special Guest Edition: Basara
by Shaenon K. Garrity, Oct 27th 2011
I wanted to do a big illustration featuring the entire cast just for the artbook, so I went back and counted them. There were 130, and that was just the major characters.
Yumi Tamura, Basara volume 23
Yumi Tamura's Basara is one of the few manga I would describe as “epic.” Long-running manga like One Piece and Naruto sometimes achieve a sense of sweeping scale, yes, but they seldom give the impression of sweeping vision, of a single massive story building to an inevitable (and no doubt apocalyptic) ending. More often, they just find clever ways to spin their wheels, moving the plot along as slowly as possible while dropping in enough action and just enough character development to keep readers hanging on.
Basara is different. Although it has its slow sections (the whole trip through the underground prison around volume 12, for example, drags), it's a carefully plotted story, spinning out character after character, subplot after subplot, then miraculously tying them all together for the climactic battle that dominates the final volumes. Tamura thinks big. By Basara’s end, she's created a sprawling world of nomadic desert villages, bustling cities, crumbling palaces, pirate ships, jungles, and snow-covered plains, populated by dozens upon dozens of characters major and minor. Almost alone among long-running manga, Basara reads not like a serial, but like a single 28-volume graphic novel.
In a postapocalyptic Japan that has reverted to a feudal system (the state of the outside world is only occasionally hinted at), Tatara, the “boy of destiny,” is born to a small desert tribe. According to prophecy, Tatara will grow up to overthrow the corrupt King Ukon and unite Japan. As word spreads, the oppressed peoples of Japan are stirred to hope—and ignore the existence of Tatara's twin sister, Sarasa, who lives in the shadow of her miraculous brother. All that changes when Tatara is slain in his first battle, leaving Sarasa to disguise herself as a man and fight as “Tatara” to keep the newborn rebellion alive.
In an improbable but romantically irresistible twist, Sarasa, early in her travels, falls in love with a young man named Shuri. Unbeknownst to her, Shuri is the Red King, the youngest son of King Ukon, and Tatara's sworn enemy. The lovers go through volume after volume without discovering the truth about each other—until they finally do, about halfway through Basara, and the game changes forever.
Maybe this plot summary makes Basara sound like a frothy cross between girl-power fantasy and Harlequin romance—something akin to the novels of Anne McCaffrey or Mercedes Lackey. In a way it is, but as the story goes on, Tamura's ambition grows. She anchors the plotlines to a framework of recurring symbols—colors, seasons, fruits and flowers—almost reminiscent of the “schemata” of Joyce's Ulysses. The characters get more complex and the plot delves into the intricacies of politics and battle strategy, but Tamura has too much of a sense of humor to let things get too dry or too dark; among other things, she's one of a handful of manga artists whose bonus four-panel gag strips are actually funny.
Sarasa, unsurprisingly, turns out to be better at running a rebellion than her brother could ever have been, but this isn't the kind of pseudo-feminist fantasy where the heroine is defined by her ass-kicking prowess and her masculine superiority to “normal” girls. Frankly, everyone in Basara is pretty awesome. The other female characters include a swashbuckling pirate captain, a mad-genius inventor, scheming noblewomen on both sides of the rebellion, and a pregnant girl who just wants her child to survive, which is treated as a mission as noble as any battle.
Of course there are plenty of men in the story, too, most of them beautiful (and the rest generally bearded father figures). Reviewing Basara for his indispensable Manga: The Complete Guide, Jason Thompson complained that “as the story proceeds, it becomes obvious that good-looking characters are incapable of dying.” It's true enough that the most appealing male lust objects have amazing survival capabilities, but even fanservice gets thrown out the window in the final volumes, in which major characters are killed and maimed. Everything builds to the almost unbearable emotional climax when Sarasa and Shuri, leading their respective armies, will have to face each other on the battlefield.
Among the many things I love about Basara, one of the biggest is that Sarasa is fighting not just to beat the bad guys (and by the end, there aren't really any bad guys, just flawed people in bad situations), but to change society. She's fighting for democracy, and she sticks to that goal to the end. To believe in her dream of giving Japan to its people, we have to know and love the people, and that's what the bulk of Basara is about. It's about Sarasa discovering her strength, and Shuri discovering his kindness, and all the people they meet discovering who they, themselves, really are.
Basara gets a lot less fan love than it deserves. Part of it, I'm sure, is the very dated early ’90s artwork, with its big hair, angular faces, and almost insectoid eyes. It's not cute or sexy in the ways that are trendy in manga today; it's forceful, striking, demanding attention. Tamura's draftsmanship and command of visual storytelling are superb from the first volume. She starts out great and gets better, mastering intense battle scenes, evocative romantic collages, and dramatic tableaux of figures outlined against stark black backgrounds. The American cartoonist she most resembles is Frank Miller. Tamura's color illustrations for Basara, including the elaborate wraparound covers, are especially eye-popping.
In addition to Basara, Viz has published the prolific Tamura's shorter manga Chicago and Wild Com., also science-fiction stories with action-driven plots, tough heroines, and groups of disparate badasses banding together into surrogate families. Her current series, 7 Seeds, which follows several groups of young people released from cryogenic preservation after humanity has been wiped out by a meteor, has yet to be officially translated. I'd love for more of Tamura's work published in English, to launch us on another epic adventure.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
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