Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Two Flowers for the Dragonby Jason Thompson, Jun 2nd 2011
"I basically create stories for myself and spare no efforts to bring them to fruition."
Episode LIII: Two Flowers for the Dragon
When I get tired of fantasy manga about vampires, yokai and people who can see ghosts, I need to read manga like Nari Kusakawa's. Her stories are never about the same old fantasy tropes that other mangaka have used over and over. The Recipe for Gertrude is the story of a bishonen demon created by a Victorian wizard from parts of other demons, a pair of demonic rag dolls, and the girl who lives with them. Palette of 12 Secret Colors is about a tropical island inhabited by beautifully colored birds and their partners, color-wizards who use their magic to transfer colors from one object to another. And Two Flowers for the Dragon, possibly her best manga, is about an oasis ruled by a clan of dragon-people, and the daughter of that clan who is engaged to two different human boys.
Fifteen-year-old Shakuya is the only daughter of the dragon clan, the benevolent rulers of an oasis surrounded by a small but thriving town. Raised by her mother ever since her human father left, she inherited her mother's ability to control water, an invaluable power in the desert. But the dragon blood is even stronger in her than it was in her mother, and when she gets excited, Shakuya transforms into an Eastern dragon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_dragon), a long serpentine flying creature like a cross between a crocodile, a horse, a stag and a snake. But she can't always control it, and there are many responsibilities that come with her power. For one, she must have an arranged marriage with a boy from one of the five noble families who, after the dragons, are the rulers of the oasis.
When she was younger, Shakuya was engaged to a boy named Lucien, but he vanished mysteriously in the desert and her mother arranged a new fiance. Her fiance when the story begins is Kuwan, the captain of the guard who protects the oasis. Soft-spoken, 26-year-old Kuwan (11-year age difference, anyone?) is a tall, handsome master swordsman with an eyepatch who spends most of his spare time defeating challengers with crushes on Shakuya.
Then one day a mysterious boy walks out of the desert: Shakuya's old fiance, Lucien, has returned! His five years in the desert have transformed Lucien from a shy, frail boy to a hottie with long silver hair, a sly smile and a habit of getting into Shakuya's personal space. (He's still a lot shorter than Kuwan, though.) Lucien has partial amnesia, and he doesn't remember how he changed from a sheltered rich boy to a desert nomad, but he does remember a letter of friendship that he got from Shakuya long ago…and he still has the rose tattoo, a sign of their engagement, on the back of his hand.
Shakuya is surprised by the return of her old fiance, who still wants to marry her. After all, they were just children then, and now she loves Kuwan. But Shakuya's mother decides to give Lucien a fair chance, and so casts a spell on Shakuya. On each of Shakuya's arms is a flower tattoo representing one of her fiances, and when her feelings for one of them deepens, more flowers will grow on that arm. At the end of a year, she will have to marry whichever one has more flowers. Shakuya accepts the test confident that Kuwan will win, gradually, Lucien starts doing little things that make Shakuya think about him in a different way. Gradually, a bud starts to grow from the Lucien tattoo on Shakuya's arm. Does her heart want something her mind doesn't? Will she fall in love with Lucien after all?
Among its many other good points, Two Flowers for the Dragon is the only manga I can think of with a human-reptile paranormal romance (well, I guess there's also The Lizard Prince) and a shot of a dragon blushing in the bath. The fantasy world it takes place in doesn't have a name—it could be the real world in the distant past—but the setting is as luscious as the love triangle setup, with its Chinese/Central Asian flavor and lots of shots of rich marketplaces, dusty deserts and lush gardens of lily ponds and waterfalls. There's also plenty of swordfights, action and blood, as our heroine faces sinister snake charmers, sword dancers, magicians and intrigue between the noble families. There are a lot of animals in this manga, including the dragon, plenty of horses, and Lu and Ku, the chibi tiger cubs who try to make the manga achieve cuteness overload. Kusakawa's art style is fairly simple, and she's got characters-have-the-same-faces disease, but Two Flowers of the Dragon has her most lovely and intricate artwork, enough to make you imagine what lies beyond the edges of the panels.
And to imagine what's in the characters' hearts. As in any good adventure-romance, the action not only moves along the plot but swings the delicate balance of Shakuya's emotions as she teeter-totters between her two lovers. Will Kuwan's smooth words water the flowers of Shakuya's heart this time? Or will it be Lucien? The gossipy young ladies-in-waiting act as stand-ins for the manga readers, arguing over whether Kuwan or Lucien is best. They play mahjong over the right to wash Kuwan when he's sick in bed; they try to peek on Shakuya when she's bathing to see how the flowers are growing on her arms; and in one scene, some of them test Lucien's resolve by flirting with him, to see if he'd hit on another girl. There's also a bit of fanservice, both male and female. "My editor (a man) suggested I feature Shakuya unclothed every episode," writes Kusakawa. (All the action scenes might also be evidence of trying to appeal to both shojo and shonen readers.) But unlike some shojo mangaka like Yuu Watase and Mayu Shinjo, Kusakawa keeps the sexiness at a 13-and-up level, except maybe for that scene in volume 3 when Kuwan feeds Shakuya a peeled grape. RROWRR! Kuwan and Lucien spend a bit of time with their shirts off, sometimes dripping wet too, but considering that the heroine has water powers and the story takes place in an oasis, it's pretty mild. Maybe Kusakawa realizes that her art is a little too stylized to be sexy, but really, the action is in the characters' hearts, not their pants. (Though some of those kiss scenes cross the line…)
Another way that Two Flowers for the Dragon differs from Yuu Watase or Mayu Shinjo or Kanako Sakurakoji, with their often passive heroines, is that Shakuya is one of the strongest heroines I've ever seen in a romance manga. When you're a shapeshifting,magic-using dragon queen you don't take too much crap from people. Shakuya isn't ashamed of being what she is (no lame "he won't like me when he realizes I'm a giant scaly dragon" self-doubt here), yet thankfully, her draconic powers don't work as a deus ex machina to get her out of every situation, either. Most importantly, she never seems like merely a boring Blank Slate stand-in for the reader. Both the men in her life are also pretty cool; Kuwan has a mature, quiet confidence and Lucien has a flirtier (but not sexual-harassment flirty) attitude. (In the omake comics Kusakawa draws Shakuya as a mangaka and Kuwan and Lucien as her two assistants.) They trade barbs and fight coolly over Shakuya's affections. On occasion, when Shakuya loses control over herself in dragon form, she needs one of the two of them—Lucien or Kuwan—to literally wrestle the dragon and tame her back to humanity. Basically, every character in Two Flowers for the Dragon is cool. Even Shakuya's favorite maid, Lupina, is no mere damsel in distress; when they first met, Shakuya accidentally transformed into a dragon and nearly swallowed her, but Lupina clawed her way out of the dragon's mouth and scolded her, thus proving her worth as a maid.
Two Flowers for the Dragon, like all of Nari Kusakawa's translated work, was brought to the U.S. by CMX, where some editor (I'm betting Asako Suzuki) must have been a fan. Unfortunately, CMX went out of business just before they could release the final volume, meaning that English speakers may never get to see the ending of this great series. It's an imaginative mix of fantasy action, intrigue and romance, and for most of the manga, you never quite know who our heroine is going to end up with. But if you've read it, let me ask you this question: do you think Kusakawa really knew from the beginning who Shakuya would end up with? Or do you think she was hedging her bets, leaving just enough ambiguity that she could go either way if one character was more popular? Whatever the answer, it's a great manga. Of all the license rescues you could ask for, I hope some company brings over more of Kusakawa's work.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.
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