Reviewby Theron Martin,
In Japan in the late 900s, the capital city of Kyoto is in the midst of a long, slow decline due to famine and plague ravaging the common people. In this environment the Minamoto clan stands as one of the premiere samurai clans, due in no small part to the successes of Lord Raikou, the Minamoto son and heir, in campaigns against bandits. His spunky kid sister Hikaru deeply respects and admires him, so much so that she longs to step beyond the roles traditionally defined for women and follow Raikou wherever he goes, much to the consternation of her father. Even a misadventure which brings her into contact with thieves and plague victims doesn't deter her. When she is kidnapped by bandits with a grudge against her brother, though, what she learns from them causes her to question some of her thinking and realize that something her brother told her was true: there are some things she is better off not knowing.
The Otogi Zoshi manga, which is being released in the States in two volumes, serves as a prequel to the Heian Arc of the Otogi Zoshi anime. For those familiar with the anime, it apparently shows the circumstances leading up to Hikaru posing as her brother Raikou on the mission to collect the Megatamas, and also the foundations of the scheme Abe no Seimei is playing out in the anime. No familiarity with the anime is required to appreciate this manga, however, as it stands acceptably well on its own as a period piece about a recalcitrant and immature tomboy who can't tolerate the role society tries to force her into and the bandit who helps open her eyes.
But that's where the problem lies, from the viewpoint of a fan of the anime: the characterization of Hikaru here is so different from what's seen in the anime. The Hikaru in the anime was a mature young woman who was trying to act responsibly and was very definitely a proper woman when not in her male guise, while this Hikaru is an immature little brat. Granted, she's going through some experiences in the manga which should mature her some, but it strains credibility to imagine that she'll grow up that much in such a short period of time. It also doesn't help that this character design for Hikaru portrays her as a short chubby-faced child instead of a very pretty average-height young woman. It would be very hard to buy her passing as an adult male the way she looks here, even with Raikou noted as having girlish features.
All of that's only going to be an issue for fans of the anime, however, and those unfamiliar with it won't notice the problem at all. Evaluated entirely independently, the manga tells a well-paced and cohesive story populated with logically-constructed and believable characters, most of whom are carry-overs from the anime: the elder Minamoto, Hikaru's brother Minamoto no Raikou, Raikou's loyal retainer Watanabe no Tsuna, and the masked mystic Abe no Seimei, all of which are real historical figures. The only completely new characters are the four bandits, of which their scruffy leader Takatoki is certainly the most interesting and well-rounded. Enough of his back-story is shown to justify why he would treat Hikaru kindly despite kidnapping her and knowing that she is the sister of Raikou, his sworn enemy, but how long will his compatriots put up with such behavior? We'll have to wait until the second volume to see on that.
The story and art is provided by Narumi Seto, who does not appear to have any other previous production credits in anime or manga released in the States. The artwork accurately captures the hair and clothing styles of the period, and while the builds on some adult male characters may somewhat exaggerate torso proportions compared to head sizes, it's not as extreme a distortion as seen in many other manga series. Fans of the anime will note that this Tsuna actually wears an eyepatch, but that's the only significant character design discrepancy beyond Hikaru and the designs in general are well-detailed. Backgrounds are detailed in some places and skimped on elsewhere, but with all the elaborate clothing patterns involved the artistry looks busy enough that a reader may not even notice their absence. Enough detail is present in action scenes that a reader usually (but not always) can clearly tell what's happening.
The anime could get graphic at times but its graphic content was spotty rather than a constant presence, and this manga isn't any different. Only a small number of scenes get truly bloody, and the closest it gets to fan service is a female bandit with a propensity for wearing revealing clothing. It's plenty enough to justify a Teen rating, though, and that may be on the low side. The rating would undoubtedly be higher had this been done in color.
TOKYPOP's production provides a cover done partly in color, with an entirely black-and-white interior. A distinctive Eastern-styled font type used in three places is hard to read against the background art, though text in word balloons is perfectly fine. An interesting compromise has been used on translating the sound effects: it's done in cases where the nature of the sound effect wouldn't be obvious from context, but otherwise the original Japanese onomatopoeias are left alone.
The first volume of the Otogi Zoshi manga works better as a stand-alone piece than it does as an intro to the anime, but it's a presentation good enough to appeal to those who know nothing about the anime and will likely still be of interest to fans of the anime. If you like period pieces, spunky female characters, and a fair amount of action then you should find this one worth your while.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B
+ Gives a good “period” feel, well-defined lead villain.
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