Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Sakura Hime: The Legend of Princess Sakura
After discovering that not only is her brother alive but the one behind most of the youko attacks, Sakura allows herself to be spirited away to Enju's secret palace. There she meets other people from the moon, but not all of them are friendly. Rurijo, a sentient, cursed stone given human form by Enju, hates the princess with an amazing intensity. Will Sakura survive her enmity? Also included is a short story about Asagiri's origins.
If Sakura begins this fourth volume of Arina Tanemura's historical magical girl tale with conflicted loyalties, she certainly isn't going to end it that way. Carried away by her older brother Enju to his secret palace, Sakura wonders if she has finally found where she really belongs. Enju seems so kind, his helpers so solicitous, that it seems to her as if she is at last where she belongs. This is, of course, before she meets Rurijo, the mysterious hooded figure who dotes on Enju. Maimai, a human Enju transformed into a moon creature, warns Sakura away from Rurijo, telling her that the woman is Enju's lover. Sakura is bemused, but seems to understand. But that night, unable to sleep, she ventures to the bathing pool, where she finds an unknown woman with a familiar face – Rurijo.
This volume actually doesn't pertain so much to Sakura as to her double. Sakura spends most of it recuperating from Rurijo's attack, while the other takes over the action. Rurijo's origins as a stone given human form by Enju make her vicious streak where Sakura is concerned perfectly plausible, at least within the familiar realms of manga. Her decision to disguise herself as the princess to infiltrate the imperial palace and get to Aoba is unsurprising, but the venomous nature of her relationship with Sakura is. This goes beyond what we typically see in girl-to-girl rivalries, with Rurijo displaying a ruthlessness and disregard for the princess' life that tends to be reserved for seinen fare. In point of fact, Tanemura discusses this in her freetalks, stating that she was hoping to give this cycle of the manga a more shonen feel with epic battles. While she doesn't quite achieve that, she does present us with a villain with clear motivations and a thirst for blood such as we have not previously seen in her works, not even in Claude from Kamikaze Kaitō Jeanne.
On the subject of Tanemura's comment sections, they are mercifully absent for most of the volume. Few mangaka can top her for inane chatter, and the book reads much more smoothly for their absence. There is an interview in the back by one of her assistants that reads a bit like the minutes of a mutual admiration society meeting, but on the whole the literal authorial voice is blessedly not present.
Artistically Tanemura has outdone herself in a few cases. Sakura's first appearance in moon princess garb is breathtaking. The fabric is palpably drawn and the design borrows from both ancient Chinese and Korean imagery. That does seem a bit odd given that Sakura's magical girl outfit is more modern than old world, but the picture is so lovely that it is easy to overlook the inconsistency. Another stand out image is the cover to the book's first chapter, with Asagiri's delicacy captured in a Thumbelina-style moment.
This volume contains a lot of back stories, so it may be fair to say that it is not a prime example of the plot moving forward. Rurijo's tale is perhaps the most central to the main story, and it is a familiar one with its “Coppelia” overtones. But also provided are the backgrounds of moon minion Maimai and the adorable Asagiri, both of which are quite well done. While Maimai's story is arguably not central to the ongoing tale of Sakura, Enju, and Aoba, it does showcase a kinder side to Enju...or so we think. In reality what it displays is his ability to manipulate, being nice to others for his own selfish purposes. The story may actually call to mind another Viz title, Togari. Whether this is an example of Tanemura trying for that shonen tone or simply a coincidence is unclear, but the casual cruelty of Maimai's past turning into the present is striking.
Asagiri's background is given in a side story, or rather, a short story originally published elsewhere and collected here. The tale is presented as a bit of a fairy tale, with Asagiri's journey from free being to sideshow freak to devoted companion chronicled delicately. It doesn't feel so much like a side story as a regular chapter in the manga, possibly a testament to Tanemura's sense of timing in including directly after Maimai's past, as it shows the two very different directions they took their lives based almost solely on who they met at a critical point.
Most of this volume's action is in the past, but the last chapter sets the characters up for a grand battle for the princess. It is easy to overlook the lack of forward movement in the plot, but it still may be more rewarding to read this and volume five together when it comes out. Sakura Hime is setting up to be an intricate story of loyalties and loves, and while Tanemura's dramatic and sparkly style of manga isn't for everyone, those who are finished reading Sailor Moon and are waiting for Madoka Magica may find that this will hold them over just fine.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B+
+ Some exquisite images, interesting back stories that don't feel distracting from the main plot.
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