Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Red Riverby Jason Thompson,
Episode LXXXII: Red River
“Adventure and good-looking boys fill this great first volume!”
—Back-cover text, Red River vol. 1
Like Ôke no Monshô (or Yuu Watase's pseudo-Chinese-historical manga Fushigi Yûgi), Red River shows us its exotic setting through the eyes of a modern-day girl. Yuri has just started high school and had her first kiss with her boyfriend Himuro. But before they can take it to the next level huge arms reach out of a pool of water and grab her, and she's sucked into the past, brought by some kind of time travel magic to ancient Hattusa, the capital of the Hittite Empire. The evil Queen Nakia wants to use her as a blood sacrifice, and to do so, she's brought her all the way from the far future. At first, Yuri can't even understand the language, and she's confused and frightened, lost in a maze of mud-brick streets chased by strange people. But she's rescued by Prince Kail, who kisses her—somehow giving her the power to speak Hittite in the process—and protects her from the soldiers. Nakia is frustrated, since it's Kail who is her true target: she wants to sacrifice Yuri to cast a curse on Kail, so that her own son, Juda, Kail's half-brother, can ascend to the throne.
And just like that, our heroine is in the 14th century BC, in a world of courtly intrigue, espionage and war. At first, Yuri just wants to get back home as soon as possible, but obstacles keep popping up which keep her from returning. First she needs to get back the clothes she was wearing when she was transported, which are still in Queen Nakia's clutches. Then she finds out that the spell can only be cast at certain times of the year, and if she misses the time window, she'll have to wait another year to have a chance at going back. Sure enough, Yuri misses the window and has to live—just for awhile, she thinks—in the Hittite Empire, despite the hostility of the Queen, who is always waiting for a chance to kill her.
Kail is intrigued by the mysterious dark-haired girl and helps her learn the ways of the Hittite court, introducing her to Zannanza, his favorite brother (there are lots of princes in the family, some good, some not so good), and Ilbani, his faithful advisor. At first everyone just thinks Yuri is some weird foreign concubine of Kail's, and at a royal ball, all the elegant busty blonde Hittite ladies snub her for showing up in a miniskirt. They also think she's too skinny, which is historically accurate; after all, not far from Hattusa was Catal Huyuk, which is famous for making statues of women that look like this, not exactly Yoshiyuki Sadamoto-esque. But gradually, Yuri wins their respect. Like any protagonist in a “visitor from an advanced future civilization” story, she impresses the natives by teaching them modern stuff, like good hygiene, respect for human rights, and horsemanship! Yes, Yuri knows bareback horse riding, back in a time when everyone else thought horses were just for pulling chariots! She's also heard of the Hittites’ secret weapon, iron, which makes them the undisputed masters of the Bronze Age! (Again, historically accurate.) And, although she's so little that Kail can easily pick her up in his arms, she's pretty good with a sword too! When Kail takes Yuri out to battle with him against an enemy tribe, her valor so impresses the people they they decide she is the incarnation of Ishtar, the war goddess. Soon, she's an important part of the Hittite kingdom, and everyone wants her.
Oh, do they want her. Red River was drawn in Shojo Comic, a manga magazine known for its sexy love scenes, and when you're in Ancient Anatolia, 5,000 miles and 3,000 years away from your parents, what's holding you back? I have a theory that you can divide up shojo and shonen manga target audiences, not by definite age groups, but by “whether or not the readers are supposed to be interested in sex yet,” and in Red River, since the heroine gets kissed on the lips in the first chapter, it's all uphill (or downhill, depending on your stance on sex in tween manga) from there. Prince Kail is a notorious womanizer, and he's fascinated with Yuri, although he tries to restrain his usual impulses for her sake. (“Yuri is going to leave this land soon! I don't want to cause her unhappiness by indulging my desires now!” ) Ramses, an Egyptian general, steals Yuri away from Kail and tries to have his way with her. Zannanza, his half-brother, is more noble and sensitive, but even he puts the moves on Yuri after the Queen doses him with her mind-controlling magic lust water! Prince Mattivaza, the dark prince of the land of Mittani, is cold towards women because of a tragedy in his past, but eventually he too decides to hit on Yuri with the help of Egyptian aphrodisiac incense! (I can't think of any other shojo manga that has so many historical aphrodisiacs.) There are countless love scenes in lotus-filled bathing pools, beautiful bedchambers and luxurious gardens. Unfortunately, most of these are nonconsensual. Yuri spends a lot of the manga pinned down, crying and shouting “No!!” as some sinfully sexy dude from the past attempts to ravish her. She's usually rescued or escapes at the last minute—I said “attempts”—but yes, this is a manga in which the heroine is constantly being assaulted.
Anyway, this is one of the many Perils of Yuri, as she also narrowly escapes being strangled, decapitated, ravished, poisoned, stabbed, kidnapped, crucified (just by ropes, not nails), thrown to the lions, skinned by a knife-licking maniac, shot with arrows, infected with plague and left to die in a sandstorm. The main appeal of Red River is this roller-coaster of danger, the way Yuri constantly gets in trouble and escapes by luck and courage and cleverness and that “makes everyone her friend” shojo character trait. Sadly, some of the other sympathetic characters aren't so lucky, but the tragic and shocking moments make the story feel more realistic and serious and less Mary Sue-ish. Gradually, Yuri grows to love Kail's homeland, and goes from trying to go home to trying to help Prince Kail with his goal of taking over the entire Middle East so he can bring about world peace. (He's a very modern dictator.) In the end, the plot involves a vast war between Egypt, Ugarit, Mitanni, and the Hittites, with Yuri and Kail traveling back and forth across the world trying to keep the kingdom from collapsing. Will their love ever be consummated? Will she ever get back home?
A lot of the fun of Red River is the adventure and bodice-ripping (if that's your thing), and a lot of the fun is in the use of the historical setting. The use of real historical names and places gives the series an added dimension, particularly if you're Wikipedia-addicted like I am. On the other hand, there are some perils in using such an obscure historical setting; for one thing, compared to, say, Ancient Egypt, there's simply not much visual reference available for how the Hittites looked and dressed. Shinohara ends up drawing lots and lots of plain-looking boxy brick buildings and simple robes…but maybe the Hittites actually decorated their buildings with elaborate fabrics and wooden decorations, but they decayed over the last 3,000 years, and it's just that archaeologists haven't found them? I'm reminded of a book by David Macaulay, Motel of the Mysteries, in which archaeologists from the future unearth a buried ruin from 1985 and try to piece together what's in the rubble, getting most of it wrong (i.e. toilet seat covers as ceremonial headgear). Shinohara's artwork is fairly simple, so when she draws some elaborate object that really stands out, like Queen Nakia's magic scepter, you can kind of suspect there's some reference material involved. But it's not that reference material is bad (quite the opposite, actually); it's just that, IMHO, if you're drawing 1400 BC Anatolia, it should look as real and lived-in and consistent as possible. My point is, if your manga is set in some exotic location, don't just draw ONE thing crazy detailed, draw EVERYTHING crazy detailed! But of course, in the end, Shinohara isn't trying to do some deep historical recreation of the Hittite Empire, she's just using it as a setting for a fantasy manga. I also regret that the magic element (Queen Nakia's magic powers) isn't a little more developed, since we barely learn anything about Hittite mythology, and the whole magic thing is just a way for Yuri to get dumped into the setting, but is never really developed after that except as a way for Queen Nakia to mind-control people. (Queen Nakia is a kinda one-dimensional villain, actually.) On the other hand, Shinohara draws good horses, which is important because Aslan, Yuri's horse, is one of the coolest male characters in the series, not to mention one of the least rapey.
Red River reached the top of the bestseller charts when it started in Japan in 1995, and it was caught up in the wave of the manga boom and entirely translated by Viz a few years later. If you crave history, horse-drawn chariots, treachery, battles and makeout scenes, all drawn in a somewhat oldschool shojo style (Chie Shinohara is a big fan of Keiko Takemiya, and she's been drawing manga since 1981) it's definitely worth finding. I do have to admit that I am crazy for Middle Eastern history and that's a major reason why I like it. In fact, why do ancient history manga always have to be about someone traveling back in time? The setting is vast enough that you could tell any kind of story you wanted to tell in it. What about a board game manga set in Ancient Egypt, Hikaru no Senet? What about a love comedy about Babylonian temple prostitutes? The first person to draw a manga like this and send me the link gets my eternal gratitude! Bonus points if it has sound effects in cuneiform!!
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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