It’s time to delve right into the meat of Red River. In fact, the first page of the story begins where another shojo manga might end. The main character, Yuri Suzuki, receives her first kiss from a classmate that she’s been crushing on for a long time. Now she and Satoshi, the boy in question, are officially boyfriend and girlfriend, and Yuri is on cloud nine.
That night she is sitting down to dinner with her family when Yuri experiences the first of several increasingly alarming incidents involving water. As she is taking her glass to the kitchen, the leftover water inside starts to burble and jump violently. Yuri initially writes this off as a trick of her imagination. The next day at school disembodied arms reach out of the class aquarium and try to grab her. Yuri shakes off the hands and shatters the fish tank, and, although no one believes her, she can’t pretend it didn’t happen. That night she is attacked again in the bathtub, and this time she hears a woman’s voice as she’s being dragged under the water. She’s only able to escape the hands’ clutches because her sisters hear the commotion and rush in.
Yuri is naturally freaked out by this. The situation is completely inexplicable but she knows that she specifically is being targeted by someone for reasons unknown. She’s wised up enough to realize that the incidents happen when she is around water, and decides that she needs to avoid water for the time being.
This vow lasts all of a couple of hours because the next morning she goes on a date with Satoshi and steps right into a puddle formed by snowmelt. This time the hands get her and drag her down as if that puddle was a pond. Yuri is now outside of any reality as knows. She manages to get loose of the hands for the third time and starts to swim towards a light in the water above her. She surfaces in a well in the middle of a Middle-Eastern looking city surrounded by stunned people wearing strange clothing and speaking a language she has never and can’t understand.
At this point in the volume, you may be thinking that Yuri is not very smart and that is a fair assessment to make from the whole first volume. In fact, I think the beginning of the story takes way too long to get rolling. Knowing what I know about the events that take place in subsequent volumes, way too much time is spent establishing Yuri as an every girl who’s blandly relatable. Her last name, Suzuki, is only mentioned I think the one time in the entire series because it’s not important. The warm generic family? Not important. This is the only time we see them and Yuri thinks about them infrequently, but that’s better than the generic boyfriend. Satoshi is irrelevant to plot after the fourth volume.
Yuri is not covering herself in glory at this point either. Stepping in the a puddle when she knew she should be looking out for water is unfortunately one of several too stupid to moments that are front loaded in the beginning of Red River. Which is a shame because she does transform into a brave and cunning woman as the series progresses. I understand that a butterfly begins as a moth, but it’s a risky story-telling technique. In starting with a character that has room to grow, you can turn people off if they are too clueless.
Yuri has arrived in Hattusa, capital of the Hittite Empire. As far as ancient civilizations go, the Hittites are fairly obscure so points for the unusual setting. Yuri gets chased around the city by some soldiers and ducks into a garden. Here she has her first encounter with Prince Kail Mursili. He takes pity on this frightened girl by trying to shield her from the guards … by grabbing her and kissing her. The guards don’t investigate the woman that they’ve stumbled across having a romantic interlude with the prince.
Viz would always put ads at the back each volume for similar works. As I’ve stated before, I was reading most of the adventure heavy shojo titles they were putting out so I would frequently come across advertisements for Red River. The tag line they chose for this series was ‘The Power of a Kiss.’ I find this rather ironic because as first kisses goes, this rather underwhelming.
Yuri finds the sudden lip-lock uncomfortable rather than mind blowing and in her words, as it’s happening, she ‘can’t breathe.’ The kiss has a magical element to it. When Kail slips her the tongue, she gains the gift of tongues and can suddenly speak and understand the Hittite language. Now that they can hold a conversation, Kail immediately makes an overture towards her. Naturally, Yuri is confused, upset and put off, so she bolts again.
She’s quickly captured by the guards and taken to meet Queen Nakia. Nakia is the primary villain of the saga, and, in addition to being a powerful political figure, she is a sorceress and a priestess of Teshub, the water god. She reveals her wicked purposes to Yuri. Nakia is planning to kill her husband, the king, and all of the heirs that come before her only son in the line of succession. She needs Yuri’s death to provide the fuel for her spell.
Word that a woman miraculously appeared in the well reaches the king’s ears and he comes to investigate. Nakia has to think fast to explain why she has Yuri in custody, but she lies that Yuri is some kind of omen sent by the water god. As priestess, she recommends that Yuri be sacrificed as an offering to the god. The king is down with this so long as Nakia agrees to make it a public event. Nakia doesn’t care to argue as all that matters to her is that Yuri dies.
Yuri cannot believe what is happening to her. This world is as brutal as it is strange, and it just blows her mind that these two people are talking about killing her as casually as you please. She’s dragged to a public arena and displayed before the crowd. She recognizes Kail in the stands and realizes that he is one of the princes who will die along with her from the way he’s seated with the royal family.
Nakia consecrates her as a virgin offering to the god, but just before Yuri is beheaded, Kail interrupts the ceremony. Prince Kail is an enemy is Nakia. He knows that she must be to no good and halts the sacrafice by claiming that he deflowered Yuri, making her no long an acceptable offering. Yuri is completely disgusted by this but goes along with the lie to keep from dying. Kail claims her as his concubine, putting her under his protection, and offers a bunch of goats to stand in as the sacrifice. Nakia is furious at being outmaneuvered. Yuri’s virginity is irrelevant to her purposes and remains determined to capture her and finish the job.
At the prince’s palace, Yuri befriends a young servant boy named Tito. Nakia uses magic, mind-controlling water to turn Tito into her unwilling assassin. Kail saves Yuri just in the nick of time and when he punches the boy, he spits up the magic water. It’s black so he knows that this was undeniably the work of the queen. Yuri is injured and she’s terribly shaken by how violent this world is and how trivial human life is treated. She faints.
The next scene is just mind-boggling to me now. Yuri wakes up half-naked in bed with Kail. She has several shallow wounds that have been bandaged up. When Kail confirms that she isn’t in pain, he pounces on her and all but tells her that he intends to have sex to with her. Yuri is distraught to put it mildly. She wails, calls out for her boyfriend back home, and swears that she hates the prince. To his credit, Kail stops molesting her and backs off.
At this point, I feel like I should mention that Red River was meant be to the ‘sexy’ series in the adventure shojo line-up. While other series certainly addressed the subject of sex in a romantic relationship, it is ever present in Red River almost from Kail and Yuri’s first encounter. I found this very titillating when I first read it about fifteen years ago, but now…Jeez Louise… This is very unsexy. Yuri is not receptive at all to the prince and has given him no reason think that she is. She hasn’t even thought to herself that she finds him attractive or anything to that effect. She’s feeling really hostile towards him and for the life of me, I can’t remember at the moment what causes her to have a miraculous change of heart in about three more volumes.
Before I get too sidetracked I want to just take a brief mention about the art. Chie Shinohara’s character designs are a little different than most people think of when they think of the manga style. As I mentioned in the introduction, she got her start in the mid-80’s and her artwork reflects an older style, particularly in Kail’s case. He’s drawn in a style that closer the adonic look supported by male love interest characters in 70’s era comics as opposed to the lankier, boy-band look you see today. He definitely has a heavier musculature, and overall he looks manlier than you typically see, even if he has a chin so triangular you could cut yourself on it.
Back to what’s happening on the page, Kail makes the situation worse by revealing that Tito is about to be executed. He’s a servant boy who stabbed a member of the royal family. As a concubine to a prince, Yuri now holds the rank of princess. Boy, is she furious that he was trying to get in her pants while Tito is being killed, making the situation all the more inappropriate. Worse, Kail knew that Tito was under Nakia’s control.
This gives us our first glimpse of the character that Yuri will eventually become. She is having none of this injustice and bursts onto the execution grounds all righteous fury. She demands that Tito be given a lesser penalty and made to work for her even though the law calls for his death. This is unprecedented for a royal to forgive a commoner and Kail is shocked speechless by her actions. He ends up backing her up and Tito is granted his life. He immediately pledges it to Yuri.
Back at the palace, Kail reveals that there is way to send Yuri home. Just as Nakia is a powerful priestess so is he a high ranking priest and sorcerer. There are a few conditions that have to be met, namely that to cross back through time things have to be the same as when Yuri first made the trip. They need the wells of Hattusa to be full, the morning star visible in the sky and Yuri has to be wearing the same clothes she came in. Unfortunately, Nakia is in possession of the clothing.
Yuri is eager to get home and the fact that Kail has been working on making that happen causes her to feel more favorable to him. He almost ruins this by insisting that they need to start sleeping in the same bed. He tells Yuri it’s to keep up the pretense that she is his concubine, but he actually has a less tawdry reason. Since he and his brothers die if Nakia gets her hands on Yuri, he has every reason to want to defend her. Even though his palace is well-guarded, Nakia has proven that her magic is strong enough to breech his home. Kail seems to naturally have the power to repel Nakia’s magic with his own powers. By staying near Yuri, Nakia’s influence can’t get to her.
Now we get to the biggest too stupid to live moment. Yuri decides that she is absolutely sick of this place and needs to go home right now. Rather than let the prince, who actually has some spies watching the queen and political power he can use against her, find a way to get the clothes, Yuri decides she’s going to break into the queen’s palace and steal them back. She slips out of the well-guarded palace with nary a plan and only the loyal Tito for back up.
It goes about as well as you’d imagine. Nakia spies on Yuri through her magic water and has a hulking goon waiting for her when she arrives. This guy is a sadist who has a vest made of human skin. He wants to sew Yuri’s on to it after Nakia is done with her. Tito rescues her from the goon’s clutches but he is just a skinny boy. He can hold off the sadist just long enough for Yuri to escape the queen’s palace, but he gets cut off and trapped inside.
Yuri has her clothes but things are not looking good for Tito. Kail and his trusted bodyguards catch up with Yuri just as she realizes her rash actions have left her friend in peril. The volume ends on that cliff hanger.
As exasperating as these characters are in this first volume, they are showing signs that have some redeeming qualities. Once Yuri arrives in Hattusa, the plot goes into overdrive, moving swiftly from plot point to plot point. That is generally how I remember the over-all plot progression as I don’t recall the series having a story-arc that just dragged to infinitum. As beginnings go, it isn’t phenomenal but it hasn’t caused the lenses of nostalgia goggles to break either.