Envy, Betrayal, and Cross-dressing: Arata the Legend 8

It’s been so long since I wrote about a manga here. I haven’t been in the mood to read anything new (or old), and the motivation to review one (in the midst of new anime season) was even less.

As with most series, the impetus to pick up this manga came from the anime adaptation. While the anime has been unfortunately lackluster, I’ve been finding myself really drawn into the world-building and conflict in the manga version of Arata. I’ve gone through seven volumes in a week and a half (thank you again, Brooklyn Public Library!). I’ve been a longtime fan, so I apologize if I’m not going to be terribly objective, but I think Yuu Watase’s strength as a manga creator stems from her ability to draw characters who care deeply about others, even at the expense of themselves. Whether this behavior elicits them sympathy or ridicule is at the discretion of the individual reader; but it’s all too common for the Watase heroine to find herself in a vulnerable emotional situation, with her own friend/lover standing over them, ready to deliver the final blow.

This is again part of why I appreciate Watase so much. She’s really good at putting her characters through the emotional wringer, using betrayal as that all-too literal knife in the back.  There aren’t that many life situations that feel as awful as being betrayed by someone you’ve trusted and someone you’ve considered a friend. In retrospect, I feel she’s being especially harsh on her hero Hinohara this time around; Miaka and Alice’s predicaments were cakewalks compared to his.One of the harshest aspects of this series is the actual process by which the various sho submit to Arata. While this series resembles Clamp’s Tsubasa in that the mission is to “gotta get them all,” Hinohara’s quest to obtain all of the hayagami entails him actually subsuming the physical and spiritual bodies of the other sho into his own sword. He’s literally carrying all of the sho who’ve submitted to him in his hayagami! That’s an incredibly weighty responsibility to bear, especially for a young boy who doesn’t even belong to that world.

Since I brought it up, while Arata feels more cohesive as a shonen series, it still falls to the same pitfalls that plagued Tsubasa. Moving from one location to the next, in search of collecting items, does get repetitive after a while. While we are introduced to an ever growing cast of characters, we don’t really get an opportunity to get to know and empathize with them. It almost feels like a laundry list; arrive at new town, find the zokusho/sho, make them submit, move on to next town. While I have no problem with this formula as it applied to video games, I’m not crazy about it in manga (and anime).

Hinohara’s savior/guilt complex stems from this burden; in order to rescue the princess and save the world, he has to prove his strength of will on other wielders of the hayagami, which can be accomplished by defeating them in battle, or in his case, by asking them nicely. So far, it’s worked out for him that he’s been able to convince the zokusho/sho to submit to him through the power of ‘shoujo feelings,’ but really, even he knows that he won’t be able to do that much longer. Sooner or later, he has to fight.

Kanate, being one of Hinohara’s companions, was selfish in agreeing to be a replacement sho. It’s almost like he hasn’t been witness to Hinohara’s distress with Tsukuyo, or even like he doesn’t know that he will inevitably will be asked by Hinohara to submit. As a character, Watase doesn’t seem sure what to do with him. Is he a comic sidekick? A rival love interest? Having run out of choices, he’s ended up in the role of jealous frenemy (a male Yui, perhaps?) Even Kanate’s motivations seem to have come out of nowhere; I’ve never had the impression that he was envious of Hinohara’s powers, not when it came at such a cost. So, was obtaining the hayagami merely to use it in vengeance against his brothers? If so, I think he went a liiii-iiitle overboard. Getting revenge against the brothers who maltreated you is one thing, massacring the whole camp is another.

I do appreciate how Watase can’t seem to help herself with the cross-dressing and ambiguous (unintended?) BL. One of the hayagami whom Arata has acquired, Sarae, has the power to change the wearer’s clothes into whatever costume s/he desires. Though otherwise a useless power, it comes in handy when Hinohara and company need to infiltrate the harem of the shinsho Kugura. Of course, Hinohara and his friends look the prettiest out of all the girls in, and of course, Hinohara is chosen by the shinsho as his favorite. How come every time a character in anime or manga crossdress they always look great doing it? I don’t think that works as easily in real life.

As I may have mentioned earlier, even I’m surprised by how much I’m enjoying this series. Shuonen is not a field where I would’ve thought Watase would have excelled; her action scenes leave much to be desired, and she focuses too much on the emotional setup of the scene above everything else. This series is only truly shounen by the tiniest margin, but hey, it works for me. It makes me think again how artificial the differences between shounen and shoujo truly are, but that’s another topic for another day.