Since I was relatively young I have loved Japanese comics aimed at girls/young women, hereby referred to by the term shojo manga. Many of my book shelves are like a time capsule of the English language shojo market from the mid-aughts to maybe two or three years ago. I decided to pull down one of my favorite series from back in the day, one that completed its run and has retreated into shadowy corner of fandom’s forgotten memories.
As I was browsing through storage, looking for an interesting contender to do a volume by volume read through of a nostalgic favorite, I didn’t know which series specifically I would pick. I only knew that I wanted to do one of the adventure-heavy titles from Viz’s Shojo line. I have lots of good memories of their titles and the stuff they licensed makes up the bulk of my collection. Ultimately, I decided to tackle Red River.
Red River is an epic time-travel romance. The main character, Yuri, is normal high school girl who is plucked from her everyday life by a hubristic sorceress queen and dragged through time and space to the ancient Hittite Empire. Yuri was targeted by the evil queen because she needed to find an individual of great worth to use as a human sacrifice. The queen is plotting to assassinate the king and all of his heirs, by his deceased first wife, so she can place her own son on the throne and Yuri’s death will power the spell.
Yuri escapes her clutches and soon finds an ally in Prince Kail Mursili, one of the royals on the chopping block. He is technically second in line for the throne but everyone thinks that he will be king as his elder brother is a sickly man who has survived longer than anyone thought he would. The scheming queen soon involves the pair in many palace intrigues, power plays and assassination attempts, but Yuri proves (after a handful of too stupid to live moments) that she has the mettle to thwart the queen’s plans. All the while, she and prince search for a way to send her back to her time, but as the feelings between the two deepen, she begins to question if she really wants to return home. By bringing Yuri to the past, the queen has sealed her own doom.
If you’ve read my novels, you can see that this is the exact sort of thing that I love.
Red River is a massive series, capping out at 28 volumes. This makes it the longest series that I’ve read to completion, beating out my all-time favorite, Basara, by one volume. It’s also the kind of shojo manga you just don’t really see very often in the English market. Its length is probably a big reason for that.
The English editions were released between 2004 and 2010, on a bi-monthly and then quarterly schedule. Back in the early aughts, manga’s popularity was booming. Publishers were putting it out cheaper than ever before. They had moved it out of the comic book stores and into bookstore chains like Borders. By publishing titles that appealed to girls and moving to places more accessible to that demographic, women were buying and this was fueling the growth of the market. For a few years, it seemed like shojo titles were practically a license to print money.
I love Viz because they responded to the boom by committing to a bunch of classic titles that spanned a two decade period. There was Fushigi Yugi: the Mysterious Play and From Far Away, two titles that are similar to Red River in that they feature a girl who transported to a world she must save. In the case of these two, the main characters go a different world instead of earth in the past. They got Basara, a Romeo and Juliet story set in a far flung post-apocalyptic future. There was Angel Sanctuary, a blasphemous fantasy epic that is closer to Garth Ennis’s Preacher series than any other manga I can think of. Rounding out this list was Banana Fish, a homoerotic crime drama that is probably the most un-shojo-iest shojo comic ever published, at least in the English speaking market.
Unfortunately, the manga market also burst in the late-aughts due to a number of factors. Book store shelves became glutted with titles no one cared about and no one bought. Then Borders floundered and closed, and they were chain responsible for the bulk for a huge slice of the sales. A lot of publishers didn’t survive the crash. Viz did make it through the lean years and, most admirably, they published most of their long-running series to completion. I doubt, though, that they were still pleased with the fact that they had licensed a bunch of 20 plus volume series in their fervor to bring us great comics.
I don’t have any data on how well Red River sold over the course of its run, haven’t been able to find so much as message board anecdote as to how profitable it was or wasn’t. Chie Shinohara, the artist who wrote and drew the story, has been creating manga since the mid-80’s and none of her earlier works or the projects she did after Red River were licensed for North America. Take that as you will.
I thought it was great at the time and I’m hoping that this is still going to feel as fresh as it was when I was a younger lass. As I said, long-running series that are epic in scope aren’t really thick on the ground anymore (outside of boy’s comics). We are going to read along for 28 volumes, recounting the highlights, lowlights and everything in between, by at least one issue per week. So let’s take a look at this classic.