Manga Spotlight: Red River

A Shoujo magnum opus by Chie Shinohara and laureated with the esteemed Shogakukan award in 2001; the oft unknown yet masterfully crafted Red River follows the journey of 90’s high school girl Yuri into the ancient past of Anatolia (modern day Turkey).

Synopsis

Yuri Suzuki is a high school girl living her ordinary life in the Japan of the 90’s. Everything looks right in place for your average girl in her teenage years until one day she is spirited away to a Hattusa, the capitol of the ancient Hittite kingdom in Anatolia. The person responsible for this is queen Nakia who has use for Yuri in the form of a nasty human sacrifice ritual. The ritual would cast a curse on all the princes of Hattusa bar the queen’s own son, ensuring his succession to the throne.

Yuri manages to repeatedly escape queen Nakia’s grasps and is aided in this by the dashing second prince, Kail Mursili (yes the Mursili who fought against Ramses II in history’s first ever fully documented battle). Not only does Yuri manage to evade the sacrificial slab queen Nakia had prepared for her, Yuri even becomes known as the living embodiment of the goddess Ishtar. As the story progresses, Yuri and Kail develop a love interest which complicates matters, especially seeing as it is their objective to send Yuri back to her own time through a similar magical spell queen Nakia used.

Many adventures ensue which see warfare, court intrigue and political infighting.

The Artwork

Red River has stunning artwork but uses it in such a way to emphasize the relationship between the two main characters. What I mean with this is that every time either Yuri or Kail are being drawn it is always, without exception, fully ornate and with great detail. It is almost inherent to the shoujo genre that the main heroine is drawn quite exquisitely and so too their main love interest.

The perfect line arts on Yuri and Kail

Side characters, unless being brought exclusively into frame are done far more hastily and without nearly as much attention to detail. In general however the proportions, anatomy and details are spot on. Despite being a series drawn largely in the mid-90’s, where less attention to detail was prevalent, you wouldn’t know just by the looks in Red River. The only outward clue (other than the story literally telling you that Yuri’s story started in 1995) that I could find were the women’s distinct 1990’s hair styles. If you didn’t grow up back then you wouldn’t even know what I meant with that.

The Story

As a shoujo there are certain elements in place befitting as such. The protagonist is a young girl, who develops a love interest with a strong male figure who also takes the place of a protagonist. The story thus is about the development of their relationship against the backdrop of the setting it takes place in. The setting is there to throw hardship and difficulties in the way of the couple, making it harder if not impossible for them to be together unless they overcome these difficulties.

In Red River, there are many dangers which lie in between Yuri and Kail being together. Some are outwardly while arguably the biggest lies in the fact that Yuri also wants to go home.

Queen Nakia again and again tries to either capture or downright kill Yuri or Kail. Nakia is a shrewd politician, using deception and schemes to rid herself of political adversaries without implicating  herself. Furthermore her husband is the king Suppiluliuma. This gives her a large degree of immunity to criminal investigation.

It is the court intrigue and the scheming back and forth which gives this story something more than mundane relationship troubles seen in the fast majority of other shoujo series.

When it comes to violence there is no shortage either. Quite frequently do characters have to engage in fist fights, or fight with bronze short swords or knives. War is also shown, mostly historically accurate. In fact I would say that the level of violence in Red River surpasses that of shoujo in general. Especially since it is so realistically portrayed (no superpowers) it brings the committed violence to a level one can relate too.

There are some tropes Red River doesn’t escape from and even seems to foster. A recurring theme, which for a male audience will be slightly cringe worthy at times, is that Yuri is brought under the influence of another man against her will. This other man is invariably also a strong personality and indeed could very well match prince Kail in power (both politically as well as physically). It is then up to a combination of Yuri’s smarts and Kail’s heroism to free Yuri from this other man’s influence. Every time Kail is forced to choose between his responsibility as prince and his love for Yuri. The internal struggle in the prince always surmounts to not being able to stand the fact that at this very moment the hands of another man may be touching Yuri and that all must be done in his power to bring her back to him.

I must warn readers here though that (near) rape is rife in Red River as multiple men find the prospect of having sex with the Ishtar quite alluring.

I get it, they’re in love. And yes men are protective of their girlfriends and wives. Most men will “happily” put life and limb in the way in such circumstances. But from a realistic point of view, Chie Shinohara has maybe over-analyzed the decision making processes of men. I can tell her, as a man, that there is very little internal struggle going on and not at all the extended internal dialogues. Men, strong men with a desire to protect their loved ones are almost like robots in such situation. “We” just do what’s necessary. And the thought processes preceding that aren’t quite as melodramatic as Chie Shinohara is inclined to show.

I’m certain this appeals to a female audience however, the strong man involving himself deeply with the thoughts as to why the girl should be saved and that other man be vanquished. Realistically…, I’m sorry.

Despite this trope however, Red River is an interesting read and one shouldn’t see it as one long story about Yuri and Kail but as a collection of stories about what happened to Yuri while she was in Hatussa. Treated as such, each individual episode is packed with intrigue, suspense, deeply developed characters, action and love.

The Setting

What made me start reading Red River, despite recognizing it would be a shoujo, was the fact that it took place in the Hittite kingdom of Hatussa. I feared that the setting might just be a front and that the story would be sloppy about it. I was proven thoroughly wrong for having such suspicions. Chie has really done her homework. I’m not an expert in the field of bronze age Anatolian history but I am an aficionado of ancient history in general and especially when it comes to the dawn of human civilization.

Every little detail, as far as I am aware, Chie got right in Red River. She constructed and portrayed the world of Hatussa near perfectly. It is as if Red River leaves the entirety of this history of the Hittite empire in tact (or what we know of it at least) and only Yuri was dropped in it as something new. Apart from the magic used to get Yuri there, which is a plot device only, it is all very authentic.

The story takes place in the 14th century BC (that’s 3400 years ago) in the middle of the lengthy transitional period between the bronze age and the iron age. The world was a very different place back then. Despite being an “Empire” the Hittites only really possessed one major city, their capitol Hatussa. City states with the immediate lands around them were often all that comprised a kingdom. You had an empire if you managed to take control over one or two other such city states already. It’s a far cry from our usual conception of an empire like the later Roman empire (which was still run like a city state by the way).

All of the major characters, bar Yuri, are historical figures. This holds true especially for the royal household of Hatussa. Kail Mursili did really exist as did all of his brothers. Their names are also correct. All other historical figures are there in their correct time frame, nothing is out of place or contrary to what we know from historical documents or even being implausible.

All the wars, bigger and smaller, are actual events depicted at the locations they were fought. Even the strategic maneuvering the combatants made and we know off are depicted accurately.

Red River even goes as far as depicting the deaths of all historical figures who happen to die in the story correctly. They die from the causes we know of historically and in the time frame we knew they passed away. A most remarkable feat by Chie Shinohara because she also manages to work in the story of Yuri and Kail in it fluently. Bar the magical plot-device it could be completely plausible that Yuri was actually there.

The sole historical, or rather scientific inaccuracy I could find was the notion in Red River than iron swords are completely superior to bronze swords. This to an extend where an iron sword could downright break a bronze one. This is not true. An iron sword will retain its edge longer than a bronze one, so in a protracted battle iron swords stayed sharp while bronze swords had a tendency to dull when beaten unto the enemy’s shields. But to break a bronze sword with an iron sword would require the strength of a gorilla and would also ruin the iron sword in the process.

Apart from that tiny hyperbole, Red River gets everything else right. Even the order of succession after the death of aging king Suppiluliuma is the correct one (Kail for instance is the second prince and not the crown prince).

This throws you right in the middle of the historical story. You feel like you’re watching history unfold itself, the window you’re peering through being Yuri.

The Characters

Character development is of the utmost importance in a shoujo. More specifically the cultivation of the relationship between the two protagonists. There is the major protagonist, the heroine whose story we follow. Then there is the second protagonist which is the male and love interest of the heroine. This is an inescapable trope and as such a lot of attention is put in this interpersonal relationship. Since the heroine is chiefly preoccupied with achieving and then maintaining this relationship a lot becomes known of the male protagonist and how they respond to the heroine’s efforts.

In fact, the male protagonist is the symbol for the heroine, one of security and understanding unto which the whole of the heroine’s psyche latches. This makes him so in involved in character development that he is as indistinguishably important as the heroine herself.

This pushes other characters to the background. Even if a Character was once important in the story, once that role is over they are pushed to the anonymous background. A character is only important for as long as they can be either a rival to Kail for Yuri’s love interest or pose a danger to the continued relationship between Kail and Yuri through other means. This means that apart from Kail and Yuri the antagonists are often the most well developed Characters. So with the disadvantage of “already used” characters all but disappearing comes the advantage that antagonists tend to be quite deeply developed and possessing motivations one can relate too.

There are thus only four types of Characters. The first are the protagonists (Yuri and Kail). Then there are the “rivals” which may very well infatuate Yuri as well (one of Kail’s brothers most notably). Of course there are the antagonists who want to either forcibly divide Yuri and Kail or kill either one. These get the most character development after Yuri and Kail themselves. Finally there are the supporting Characters which sadly, after their job is done, may recur but become invariably quite anonymous.

This sounds bland, but is quite a step up compared to Shounen where only the protagonist and the antagonist get any character development to speak off at all. In fact, the interpersonal development between Characters actually requires the story to minimize the number of characters this is done with in order for both reader and author to keep track of it all.

Aside from all this, the aforementioned historical Characters give the story an interesting twist. Chie depicts them in interesting ways with personalities we can better relate too. Think of the iconic Ramses II and how they may be as a person. Quite difficult to conceive even right? Chie managed to give them a human character.

Summary

I am a man and I’m not young. Shoujo is my demographic antithesis. Yet the intriguing story and backdrop of Red River makes it enjoyable to a demographic going far beyond Shoujo alone. Any adult with a lust for historical fiction (I believe the term is historical fact-ion) can enjoy Red River. The story has some recurring plot devices which especially to male readers may be a bit too melodramatic but is also full of political intrigue, murder, warfare and brutal armed combat more akin to a Seinen.

Despite it’s age, coming from the 1990’s, Red River has a fresh art style which can easily compete with 21st century Manga. You wouldn’t know the difference from the art alone. The line arts are crisp, detailed and proportionally correct. Chie does not shy away from more complicated frames such as high speed chases.

The historical backdrop is all correct and it is hard to find a fault or even an implausibility in the story when compared to what we know from history.

As a Shoujo the story revolves heavily around interpersonal character development. This can push already used characters into anonymity but is certainly a step up from Shounen and the Characters who do remain in focus are diverse and we can relate to them and their motivations.

Leave a Reply