Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Sakura Hime: The Legend of Princess Sakura
Sakura is still being held by her brother Enju, who thinks that he is protecting her from the same tortures that he was subjected to at the hands of humans. Aoba, Asagiri, Byakuya, Kohaku, and Hayate are en route to her rescue, but first they will have to fight Enju's minions, former humans (mostly) who were turned into youko of the moon. As each prepares to fight his or her designated opponent, pieces of their pasts come to light and it soon becomes obvious that the group will not only have to fight the person in front of them, but also their own memories. Also included are three short stories, “White Rose Academy” in volume 5 and “The Angelic Gold Coin of Maple Rose” and “The Mascot Sports Festival” in volume 6.
One of the key elements to writing a story about a group of variously talented people entering a building in order to rescue a captive held on the top floor is not to make it feel like a role-playing game. Sadly, Arina Tanemura has partially failed this test. While it is clear that her goal in having each of Sakura's friends fight a member of Enju's retinue and thus reveal key elements of everyone's pasts, the intervening scenes have a sense of turn-based tower climbing gameplay that takes some of the enjoyment out of the tale. The backstories themselves are good, but one could wish that Tanemura had chosen a different method of incorporating them.
Both of these volumes share the task of rescuing Sakura from her brother's clutches. We begin with Byakuya's fight with the cross-dressing Maimai, essentially where volume four ended. This is the most clear-cut fight scene in the books, as we are already privy to Maimai's history – Byakuya shows some surprising talents and the two do battle. Despite that, there is very little actual fighting here, with the primary focus being on Byakuya's transformation. This is, as usual, one of the best moments of an Arina Tanemura story: the transforming and full image of the resulting change. Elaborately elegant costumes are part of Tanemura's stock-in-trade, and Byakuya's is no exception. Tanemura's predilection for plastering her pages with screen tones takes away from both the action and the still shots a bit, but overall the opening pages of volume five are some of the best in both books. (It is also interesting to note that Tanemura comments in one of her freetalks that she feels that if something is worth doing, it is worth overdoing. This may explain her toning style.)
Once that fight is over, the rest of volume five is taken up with ninja Kohaku's history. Tanemura's skill at drawing cute little girls comes to the fore, and while ten-year-old Kohaku looks more like a thirteen-year-old, this is a visually pleasing section. The story, despite its focus on Kohaku, actually says more about villain Shuri, whom Kohaku is preparing to fight. Yes, we do learn some aspects of Kohaku's family life that are enlightening, as well as more about her relationships with Aoba and Hayate, but it is Shuri's character that ends up taking the spotlight. The basic tragedy of the character comes through in both his monologues and his facial expressions, and while it isn't as heartbreaking as some of the stories in Full Moon, it still achieves a nice level of pathos. The more intriguing and emotional history, however, is volume six's exploration of tiny Asagiri's past. From the short story published in volume four, we know that she is a snow spirit; now we get to read about what happened before she was shrunk down. These chapters are a classically ill-fated love story that, despite being predictable, still tug at the heartstrings. Far from being the cute little mascot character that she could easily have become, Asagiri instead follows in the footsteps of Kamikaze Kaitō Jeanne's Finn Fish in that she has a fully developed past in which she learns some hard lessons, in this case about believing what you are told. These chapters are also strong because of the characterization of some of the background players, who very easily could have fallen into stereotypes but instead rise above them. Also interesting in this section is the clothing – where Sakura and Aoba dress in the styles of the Heian period and the Moon People wear modern clothes, the snow villagers all wear the garb of the Edo period. Tanemura offers no explanation for this – her freetalks remain tangential – but it adds variety to the artistic style and certainly gives the village the sense of being someplace out of the ordinary.
For a series that bears her name, Sakura herself is largely absent from these books, mostly showing up to plead with someone not to fight. While the other characters certainly carry the story well enough, she herself feels somewhat diminished. As a magical girl, we expect that she will rise to the occasion and save the day, and she may do that yet as the volumes go on. But her damsel-in-distress position in these two books undermines any strength of character that she previously had. Not that she has to fight in order to be a strong female, but she does need to do something beyond express her distress. Granted, her brother has told her repeatedly that lives rest on her decisions; it would simply be nice to see her working through those choices.
Each of these volumes also contains a fifty-page short story, and volume six also has a shorter one. The story in volume five, “White Rose Academy: Vampire Rose,” is the better written of the three, and the art is much cleaner than in the actual chapters of Sakura Hime. That said, it is not a particularly wonderful story, and vampire fans may be shaking their heads at Tanemura's take on the genre. “The Angelic Gold Coin of Maple Rose” concerns a small angel who wants to be human for a day and is clearly geared towards a younger audience than the main story. While there are plenty of tongue-in-cheek references to keep the older readers interested, the story is more like Tomomi Mizuna's The Big Adventures of Majoko than any of Tanemura's works and it may be a bit too sweet to stomach. “The Mascot Sports Festival” requires a familiarity with Tanemura's complete catalog, as it stages a contest between the mascot characters of her various series. Strangely enough volume six also contains several pages of gag strips about Gentlemen's Alliance + which will make more sense if you have recently read that series.
These are not the strongest volumes in Tanemura's latest magical girl tale, but they are still engaging. Once she is done explaining everyone's pasts, it is to be hoped that the story will get back on track and that we will see some real progression in the storyline. But in the meantime, this is enough to keep us going until Tanemura gets where she's trying to go.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : B
+ Asagiri's story is well done, clothing choices are interesting. Good development for both heroes and villains.
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