I first got into Basara by Yumi Tamura years ago. I bought the first volume and then didn’t buy the second volume until a number of years afterward. I couldn’t tell you why I stopped reading Basara for so long, but I do know that when I picked it up again I re-read the first volume and finally fell in love. Unfortunately for me, Basara had been completed and many volumes had already begun to go out of print. I managed to find 26 volumes of Basara at or below MSRP. My favorite comic book shop carried many of the in between volumes and I managed to snag most of the rest for cheap at conventions and swap meets. Only volume 19 eluded me. Then a friend tipped me off to the fact that Lulu.com had it for sale for around $7. I ordered it, but it was not meant to be and Lulu cancelled the order weeks later. I finally just caved and bought a used library copy for about $40. I really just wanted to finish reading Basara! I had all the other volumes lined up, ready and waiting to be read! So I got that copy of vol. 19, which only had some cover damage, and gleefully finished this classic epic tale.
If you haven’t heard much about Basara before, the story covers the struggle of Sasara, who witnesses the massacre of her village. Her entire family is killed, including her brother Tatara, who was considered to be “the boy of destiny.” Sarasa cuts her hair and poses as Tatara to fool the attackers, the Red King and his army. This sparks a wild goose chase for Tatara as Sarasa and the few remaining survivors from her village attempt to avenge their loved ones. In the process, Tatara/Sasara’s quest for vengeance turns into a full-blown revolution attempting to overthrow the monarchy in a post-apocalyptic Japan. (To clarify, the Red King is the son of King Ukon, who rules over all of Japan. Prefectures are controlled by other members of the royal family.) As her goals shift towards freeing the Japanese people from oppression, Sasara gains a very colorful cast of allies who all swear their undying loyalty to her. It’s all very shounen manga-esque, despite the fact that Basara is a shoujo manga.
And that’s the one thing I really love about Basara: it’s the kind of manga I *wish* Naruto, Bleach and all those other long-running, filler-prone shounen epics were like. There is action, adventure, political drama, romance, intense camaraderie and yet Yumi Tamura allows Sarasa to be a girl as well as a hero, without ever losing relevance to the main plot. Man, I would buy so much more shounen manga if it read like Basara.
Tamura first does this by allowing Sarasa to fall in love with a mysterious fellow she meets at a hot spring. As she becomes more and more interested in this man, Sarasa must still return to fight as Tatara and become a man again. It comes to the point where Tatara and Sarasa conflict and Sarasa is forced to choose one in order to keep the revolution going. Instead, Sarasa learns to sideline her personal feelings in order to protect the lives of her comrades and attempt to achieve the greater good. Going a step further, Sarasa doesn’t totally put away her womanhood, but allows it come out when she gets the chance to let her hair down. Just the fact that Tamura explores Tatara/Sarasa’s deep personal conflicts about the rebellion she’s leading and allows her to cry about it with no shame or stigma is refreshing.
The second example is when Tatara/Sarasa must reveal to her growing band of followers that she is female and not actually the original boy of destiny. Because of the elaborate ruse Sarasa had to commit to fool the Red King and his army after her brother was first killed, only Tatara’s inner-most circle knows that Tatara is really female. Because of Tatara’s increased notoriety and attempts to squash her, even many of Sarasa’s fellow villagers are not filled in on the truth. At first it feels like Tamura is using this caveat as a perceived weakness, something that could surely bring about Tatara/Sarasa’s downfall. But while Tamura seems to play that card, she turns that perception around when Sarasa finally reveals her gender to her followers and they accept her anyway out of fierce loyalty to the leader who has proven herself over and over again while holding their lives and their skills in high regard. To them, it doesn’t matter whether Tatara is male or female, just that Tatara is a capable, caring leader who attracts her followers with infectious warmth and determination.
Because of this Tatara/Sarasa learns to trust her followers more and really begins to transform from a figurehead to a leader that is truly amongst the people. Of course, this isn’t to say she isn’t an integral part of her own rebellion, just that she is only one part of a larger operation. Without Tatara the revolution would not be successful, but without Tatara’s followers, things wouldn’t work out either.
There are, of course, many twists and turns to Basara that feel like they take the reader away from what’s important. Especially in the middle volumes, Tatara seems to be doing a lot of pointless little side missions and then she runs off with her mysterious man, Shuri, for awhile after becoming exhausted by fighting. But each encounter Tatara/Sarasa has, she learns something and/or gains important allies that return to fight with her as Tatara’s rebellion really begins to gain traction. Sometimes Tamura goes into the stories of the many characters (no, seriously, there is a huuuuuuuge cast of characters), but again many of these side stories wind up becoming relevant to the main story or are somehow deeply connected to the main story. But this isn’t a happy-go-lucky shoujo manga, so a lot of these stories are dark and unhappy, perhaps to portray just how bad life is for everyone in this post-apocalyptic nation.
Even the ending of Basara is bittersweet. While Tatara reaches her goal (as if you had any doubt that she would), many people’s lives are lost even as Tatara works hard to prevent needless death. Sarasa and Shuri get to be together, but there are still many obstacles that stand in their way. Tamura only begins to show the happy ending everyone has been striving for as she completes Basara with two volumes of short stories. And even those are still rife with pain and suffering before anything positive begins to happen! It’s kind of odd for a manga centered around a revolution that’s supposed to be about cherishing people’s lives.
Basara never really caught on with readers, probably because of Tamura’s art style, which is sketchy and complicated. For whatever reason, Tamura’s lines sometimes becomes so uneven that you wonder if that’s her style or if she was too exhausted to draw properly. It looks dated in comparison to most of the shoujo that came out in 2003 and is more reminiscent of Moto Hagio’s style than Arina Tanemura’s. The manga is also visually busy, which unfortunately seems to turn off most readers. I hear a lot of complaints from readers that manga like Basara (in visual density) are too confusing to continue reading. I cannot help but wonder if this was part of the reason Basara and Tamura’s other manga published in English, Chicago and Wild Com, didn’t do well. Either way, we’ll probably never see more Yumi Tamura manga in English.
Also something I thought didn’t help Basara was the fast pace at which Viz initially released the manga. While the release of later volumes slowed considerably, the early volumes seem to have come out at a very quick pace, perhaps too fast for most manga buyers. We’ve seen Viz cause this problem for readers with intense speed ups for more popular series and it doesn’t really seem to do any good or be very popular with readers. I feel reluctant to assign blame for the old Viz shoujo logo because it’s not as bold and pink as the current Shojo Beat line, but I do wonder if many readers over looked Basara because it was marked as shoujo. It’s really a shame because it is probably the one manga with the most shounen/shoujo crossover appeal. For example, fans of One Piece would probably really like Basara and see many good similarities in the way the two manga are written. Seinen and josei readers would also appreciate Basara‘s mature themes. (Basara makes most other shoujo manga seem shallow in comparison.)
I’m really glad I got to read Basara all the way through. It was definitely worth the wait and the cost of that one last volume. Check it out if you can find the volumes in stores or at a library.