I used to spend every Saturday afternoon – or any evening/afternoon/day I had free, really – hanging out at Borders, sipping on some milk tea, and reading manga. It started with Sailor Moon, and other classics like Ranma 1/2, Rurouni Kenshin, Neon Genesis Evangelion, of course Dragon Ball Z, Trigun and loads of magic girl stories, like Ceres and Yu Watase’s other gem, Fushigi Yugi. It followed with the boon of manga that came later: several CLAMP works, Nana, and later, some sillier girly ones: Love Com, Monkey High, Otomen (hilarious!), and Skip Beat. But of late – and especially since Borders closed – I’ve felt like truly engaging manga were few and far between. It could be that I’m getting older. Or it could be that the American manga market is getting flooded with Twilight clones like Black Bird. Whatever the case, I turned to DC and Marvel to fill my animated reading needs though on a much sparser basis.
I picked up Toma Rei’s Dawn of the Arcana months ago – probably over a year ago – with low expectations. But I’ve just read volume twelve, and I have to say: it’s reminding me of the feelings – the anticipation and excitement – I had when I was a kid begging my parents to take my to Borders, where I was reading four-five different series at a time. Probably the last manga I felt this way about was Red River.
Centered on Princess Nakaba of Senan, she was born of an ignoble complexion for her land: red hair. True royalty in the region is viewed as having black hair. But her black-haired mother had run off with a commoner and thus she was born with a look that was not only disrespected, but relentlessly mocked and disgraced – to the point that she was hidden away from the land’s subjects for most of her life. Her only friend, Loki, is a member of another maligned group: the ajin, who are humanoids with animal traits that are enslaved and mistreated by humans.
Senan and its rival kingdom, Belquat, are nearly always in a state of war. To ease tensions, Nakaba is offered in marriage to Prince Caesar. In a classic tsundere style, Caesar initially is immature and taunts her, but the two soon fall in love. His father, the king of Belquat, though, fears the Arcana of Time – and it’s for that very reason that he wiped out her race, leaving her the lone survivor. Tension rises when he discovers her heritage.
Initially, it felt like standard fair to me. Girl marries jerk, eventually falls in love, but her best friends loves her and has always been kinder… she’s a princess… she’s super special because she’s just the most special person in the world… conflict, yadda yadda… obstacles to overcome………… you know the schtick. But Dawn of the Arcana has pushed expectations for me.
For example, Caesar and Nakaba, at this point, are only a prince and princess in Belquat – still under the rule of his antagonistic parents. Senan, on the other hand, is controlled by Nakaba’s cold and uncaring grandfather, and seems destined to be ruled by her spoiled bully of a cousin. Peace looks like a distant dream. But with each kingdom destroying villages of ajin and threatening destruction of the other, time is running short. The two become uncertain of whether they can wait for time to run its course. So they hatch a plan.
In a twist I never expected, Nakaba leaves Belquat – and by effect, Caesar – and returns home to Senan, where she remarries her cousin, the heir apparent, in a grab for power and with hopes of one day reuniting with Caesar. This was impressive to me because shojo manga so rarely has a girl that displays the strength needed to leave her love, by her own choice, indefinitely. And because of the limits of her power, she doesn’t know exactly when they will reunite. In many ways, it is Nakaba who leads Caesar along, hatching plans and somewhat dubious ones for a young girl, like a political (but of course it’s chaste) marriage, at that.
The story, to me, rates at a fair 5/5 – not in terms of this simplistic overview, but in the details Toma infuses.
The protagonists are, of course: Nakaba, her eventual love Caesar, and her best friend/loyal protector/long-time admirer, the ajin Loki. The antagonists would be Caesar’s parents and a majority of Nakaba’s remaining family. The cast is also filled out by some fairly standard shojo characters: the willowy, princess-y girl who despite being everything Nakaba was expected to be is utterly sweet and her best friend; the jealous brother who wants to take the protagonist from her love interest due to spite more than love; the boy lolita; loyal-to-unnatural degrees servants.
What sets apart the cast, for me, are Nakaba’s true strength of mind, her willingness to step into moral grays, and her ability to deny her own wants in pursuit of her ideals. Her longing for true peace is such that she’s willing to sacrifice all else that is important to her. She’s willing to threaten lives to advance her goals. She’s willing to tread in the gray area that shoji manga all too often side-steps. And Toma really makes us see how gray her choices are, as opposed to some lesser manga who try to make minor offenses seems like major moral dilemmas.
The characters, weighed down by some pretty standard archetypes, are saved by the likability of Nakaba, and the balance made between the rest of the cast. I’ll give it a 4/5.
A bit simplistic, I do find it refreshingly nostalgic – a bit of a callback to the 90s style I grew up with. The people themselves are not superbly drawn, but Toma – or at least one of her assistants – is very good with clothing and scenery. Again, for a mainstream manga that I know probably has some serious deadlines to meet, I’ll give it a 4/5.
All in all, I’m hooked. It was slow going at first, and I mostly picked it up because the costumes were worth examining. But the story has really progressed in an engaging – even addicting arc. Overall, I’ll give it a solid 4.5/5 stars as a superb shojo manga.
Have you read this series? How do you feel?