The Spring 2017 Manga Guide
The Water Dragon's Bride Vol. 1
What's It About?
Asahi is the cared-for child of loving parents whose happy life is disrupted when she's pulled through the garden pond into another, darker world. Now trapped in a superstitious world that bears a remarkable resemblance to Japan's distant past, Asahi is rescued by a young boy named Subaru. Unfortunately, his good intentions in bringing her home to his credulous mother get Asahi sacrificed to the Water Dragon God. The god finds himself fascinated by Asahi and so keeps her alive, but Subaru will stop at nothing to retrieve his friend. Even if Asahi lives, can she survive in this place? The Water Dragon's Bride is an original manga series by Rei Tōma. It is published by Viz Media under their Shojo Beat label; the first volume was released in April and costs $9.99.
Is It Worth Reading?
I really enjoyed Rei Tōma's previous English release, Dawn of the Arcana, so I was excited to hear that her newest fantasy series was also getting an official translation. It's safe to say that I was not disappointed. The Water Dragon's Bride’s first volume is a shoujo adventure in the vein of Red River and From Far Away, with a girl being drawn into what is either a different world or the distant past, where she must learn to survive. The major difference from those other two? Asahi's only about five, and thus much more vulnerable, both as a child and as a girl. She's also modern, and thus utterly unprepared for a world where her opinion doesn't matter at all, an issue that gets her silenced by a tetchy Water Dragon almost as soon as she comes into his possession as a sacrifice. While this does make Asahi less whiny (and she is a little irritating, although the reason is understandable), it also serves to highlight her new, subservient status in life – she's a sacrifice, and even though she is eventually brought back to the surface, the fact that she's a girl in this place and time isn't likely to change her position. Like Toma's heroine in Dawn of the Arcana, Asahi is going to have to come into her own on her own, by coming to understand her own strengths in a world that doesn't necessarily want her to have any.
The story thus far seems to be gearing up to be a combination of fantasy and romance, with both Subaru and the Water Dragon showing an interest in the heroine. (A time skip looks like it's coming soon.) It will be interesting to see what direction Toma takes that in, given that this is at least the third “sacrifice a girl to a water god” story to be translated into English, the other two being Bride of the Water God and Give to the Heart. (Who knew that was a subgenre?) While the volume is largely set up and a bit of world-building, Toma still manages to convey Asahi's struggles and emotions well, as well as those of Subaru and the Water Dragon, and her deceptively simple style is in large part to thank for this. She gets a lot of emotion out of the characters’ facial expressions, and the sparse backgrounds help to give the story an unreal feeling in terms of setting.
With its nods to folklore and sense that the story is only barely begun, The Water Dragon's Bride’s first volume feels like a worthy addition to the girls-in-another-world genre. Toma is taking her time with this book, and I'm hopeful that will pay off as the story continues.
Water Dragon's Bride is a fairy tale in a classic sense – something magical and amazing happens to an ordinary young girl, but there's no guarantee that it won't end in horrible, brutal tragedy. It's initially disarming, as despite being suddenly snatched away from her home and nearly murdered, Asahi remains cheerful and confident while staring down a literal god. Asahi claims that her frankness is her greatest flaw, and while she may not come off as very well-behaved to those around her as a result, it's this quality which makes her so endearing. When she first meets the Water Dragon God, she's hilariously unimpressed by his appearance, and by his subsequent vow to marry her when she comes of age. It's especially creepy of the god to say that considering Asahi looks to be around eight years old, and thus really satisfying when Asahi harps on how creepy he is.
Reading Water Dragon's Bride, I quickly grew attached to Asahi, and hoped that nothing bad would ever happen to her…just before a seemingly endless sequence of horrible things happened to her. It's very distressing to see such a bright and innocent character go through so much suffering, which makes me simultaneously impressed by and resentful of Rei Tōma for cultivating such an emotional response. It's clear that Toma's not in the habit of pulling punches on her characters, offering them just enough occasional moments of relief that it hits even harder when they're made to suffer again. As Asahi notes, the world she has fallen into is a cruel one, but it's not quite pointlessly cruel. Asahi and her friend Subaru retain enough hope and courage that the manga doesn't feel sadistic in its treatment of them. My main concern is that the Water Dragon God may end up having a legitimate chance at a romantic relationship with Asahi based on promotional images for the series; that's not a suitable conclusion given that he contributed to her torment, and I hope it turns out that those images are misleading.
It's an engrossing manga that's very adept at garnering emotional reactions. Some of the characters and a good chunk of the artwork seem overly simple, but for the fairy tale-like nature of the story, the first is appropriate and the second isn't as big a flaw as it could be. Overall, Water Dragon's Bride took me by surprise in how much I liked it, and it seems to have a great amount of potential. Depending on the eventual direction of the plot, the manga could either grow into a classic, or a poorly realized romance. Or maybe poor Asahi will just get tortured some more and I'll be upset forever.
Featuring a young girl out of time, a human sacrificial ritual, and a clueless bishonen water god who thinks of the main character merely as entertainment, The Water Dragon's Bride manages to convey a number of strong emotions in its first volume. Asahi, the red-headed girl from the modern era who's dragged into a pond in her backyard and flung into Kofun-era Japan, is too young to make her status as a god's bride remotely romantic, but considering the water god's utter naiveté when it comes to human needs and behaviors, the romantic element—if it ever appears—needs some time to mature. Plus, there's Subaru, the more age-appropriate village boy who's willing to do virtually anything to save Asahi from the cruel fate his own mother led her to—and the bond between him and Asahi is palpable, even during the limited time we have with them so far. His mother makes for a frightening villain, considering how cavalier she is about the prospect of sacrificing this child her own son is clearly attached to in order to gain blessings by the god for her family. True, Asahi isn't the first maiden the village literally feeds to the fishes to “wed” the god, but it surely feels like cheating even by their own misbegotten rules to sacrifice a stranger who happens to pass through town. When Subaru manages to rescue Asahi—thanks to some more sympathetic gods’ assistance—his mother again spearheads a horrific moment of torture by dipping Asahi's hand in boiling water, claiming if she were innocent, her hand wouldn't burn—in complete disregard of all logic. Although the character is largely two-dimensional at this point, her maniacal obsession makes the danger to Asahi poised in the real world so much more urgent than any potential threat from the egotistical water god she meets in the spirit realm.
Rei Tōma's art throughout the volume paints an attractive picture of the village in the past and the spirit realm itself. The lighter screen tones in the spirit world are an especially noticeable contrast to the dark, ominous tones used during the moments of greater tension. While the readers have yet to get a full picture of most of the characters—particularly the water god—the volume is paced precisely right to keep the story flowing. It's sure to connect with readers of fantasy that runs a bit darker, and it reads something like The Ancient Magus’ Bride with less sense of whimsy and less charismatic characters.
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