by Caitlin Moore,

Fushigi Yugi: Byakko Senki

Volume 1

Fushigi Yugi: Byakko Senki vol. 1
In the months since Takiko Okuda's death, her friend Takao Ohsugi has taken custody of the book The Universe of the Four Gods and has been trying to fend off rumors that his friend died in a murder-suicide by her father. Despite his efforts to rid the world of the book, it seems indestructible. He warns his eight-year-old daughter Suzuno to stay away from it. But when an earthquake strikes, he tells Suzuno to go into the book and become the priestess of Byakko for her own protection, and to fulfill her destiny as the Priestess of Byakko.

When I was first getting into anime in seventh grade, back when high-speed internet and legal streaming were only a distant dream, it was common practice for my friends and I to lend each other manga and anime VHS tapes. After all, we were only twelve and these things weren't cheap, so sharing was essential to making the hobby even remotely affordable for us. One of the videos my friend lent me was a volume of Fushigi Yuugi. It was just four episodes in the middle of the series, but even without the context of the previous story and character development, it wormed itself deep into my heart and has not let go since that day.

Ten years after writing the original manga, telling the story of Miaka and Yui and the Suzaku and Seiryu warriors, mangaka Yuu Watase released the prequel story Fushigi Yuugi: Genbu Kaiden, telling the story of Takiko Okuda and the Byakko warriors. Though experienced readers knew Takiko's fate from the original story, Watase was able to make the story compelling, and show how they have matured as an artist and storyteller since the original manga's run. Now, the time has come to fill the final hole in the saga: the story of Suzuno Ohsugi and the warriors of Byakko.

I've always loved shoujo-style isekai series, which often follow a more classically mythic cycle than the current trends. A young woman, uncertain about herself and growing up, descends into another world, struggles, meets allies and enemies, falls in love, and finally returns to her own world, more mature and ready to face the challenges that await her. Unfortunately, that style has more or less died out and been reincarnated into stories where the protagonists, well, die and are reincarnated in another world. Byakko Senki is a throwback in that way, due to how each cycle of the saga is structured, and for many of us older fans, a return to form.

At least, that's what I hope. It's hard to say exactly, because this volume feels more like a prologue than anything else. Watase takes their time setting up Suzuno's life and Xi-Lang. She first enters the world at only eight years old after watching her house fall apart and crush her parents in an earthquake. She's small and scared and misses her parents, nowhere near ready to perform the duties of a priestess. She meets two brothers, Karm and Kasal, wandering through the desert, as well as Neiran, an angry and dangerous young woman who can transform into a tiger.

At this point, I found myself wondering whether Suzuno would grow up in Xi-Lang, but that turned out to not be the case. After a timeskip, we meet the eighteen-year-old Suzuno - the oldest priestess, and a different sort from the dimwitted-but-kind Miaka and the spirited Takiko. Suzuno is shy, bookish, and introverted, an artist haunted by images from a mostly-forgotten period of her life: tigers and deserts and kindly young men. In little time, Watase pulls off some fairly strong characterization, giving an idea of their personalities and hinting at their past traumas (because of course there are past traumas, this is a shoujo isekai after all) in a brief period.

Perhaps the most interesting character is Neiran, a young woman with the ability to transform into a tiger. She's dangerous - cunning, violent, and angry, but with a hint of desperate survivalism that makes me suspect she has a tragic past of some sort. Someday in the future, she'll make an excellent foil to Suzuno, or perhaps a villain like Yui in the original.

Watase's art is, as always, simply gorgeous. Since the very beginning of their career, they have had a gift for expression, communicating their characters' mental and emotional states without them needing to say a word. It's fun to see how things have evolved since one of the characters is hinted to be the warrior Tatara, who made an appearance in the original Fushigi Yugi. There's the overall changes in art style, of course - softer, rounder faces, more realistic body types, and so on - but one interesting shift is that while Tatara was pale in the original, here he is distinctly brown-skinned. It makes sense, since Xi-Lan is a desert country, and it's nice to see some variety in ethnicity in the cast.

And what a desert country it is! It's all desolation and emptiness, emphasizing just how small and alone Suzuno is when she arrives. It's dotted with ruins, each crumbling wall realized in just the right level of detail and wall murals depicting the legend of the Priestess of Byakko.

I wouldn't take issue with this volume feeling like a prequel, but for one thing: Watase only published one more chapter after the last one in this volume in 2018, and then had to take a break for their health. For two years, the series has been on indefinite hiatus. I'm more angry at the harsh system that ruins so many manga artists' health than anything else, and I hope Watase all the best with their recovery, but it's frustrating getting to the end of the volume, just as the plot is about to fully set in motion, and realize there isn't any more, and that there may never be. There's still hope for continuation - Genbu Kaiden was marked by a couple multi-year hiatuses - but nothing is guaranteed.

Byakko Senki is a must-read for longtime Fushigi Yuugi fans, and worth a look even for newcomers to the saga. However, if you do decide to give it a read, be ready to stay on hold for a long time - possibly forever.

Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A

+ Stunning art; gives a strong sense of the characters in only one volume; old-fashioned shoujo isekai; a must-read for longtime fans of the franchise
Feels more like a prologue than anything else; may never continue

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