Artist Spotlight: You Higuri

September 16, 2011

Sometimes, I look back and am shocked by how much work certain authors have published in English. In some cases, it makes sense that we have a ton of work by, say, Rumiko Takahashi or CLAMP available. There are some artists, like Arina Tanemura or Kaori Yuki, who surprise me with their popularity since neither has had a super-popular anime in the US, but both are still fairly popular based solely on their manga.

And then there are mid-level authors like You Higuri. There’s nothing really wrong with You Higuri’s work. In fact, she’s a great artist who loves drawing detailed historical settings. Her series Gakuen Heaven and Gorgeous Carat are both fairly popular BL series. Both of those series were released by BLU in the US, but Higuri has a variety of series from many other publishers as well, none of which have been very popular. Yet here we are, with around 40 volumes of her manga from eight different series in English.

Here’s a look at her work available in English, starting from Cantarella in 2005 and working through the present.

Seimaden – CMX, 10 volumes (original publisher: Kadokawa Shoten): In the early 90s, shoujo fantasy was queen, and we’ve got several examples available in English for the curious. Seimaden and RG Veda are the two most popular, but Earthian is also of the same ilk and time period. All three were the first regular series work for artists that later enjoyed success in Japan. I haven’t read Earthian, but unfortunately both RG Veda and Seimaden are dated and a little difficult to get through.

Seimaden is a story of star-crossed lovers. Laures loves Alice so much that he agrees to become a demon king in order to save her, but she is killed instead and her soul is reincarnated through the years until she is born as Hilda, a dancer with no memories of her past. Laures, meanwhile, has been biding his time and honing his skills in order to become the king of demons, and when he finds Hilda, he makes his move. Unfortunately, Hilda has a human admirer in the form of Rodderick, the reincarnation of the Warrior of Azzelle and Laures’ human nemesis. Hilda isn’t in love with either of them. You see where this is going. There’s also sub-plots involving the dying race of the Azzelle warriors and a power struggle in the demon world, along with some vaguely BL-flavored connections between Laures and one of his followers, who is an angel for some reason.

While I do appreciate the melodrama, and Higuri’s art, while dated, is in fine form here, with lots of detailed settings and nice character designs, Seimaden isn’t a terribly interesting read. The plot is slightly too predictable, the characters just shy of being developed past stereotypes. It’s not bad, just a little boring. It does have its moments of brilliance, however, one of my favorites in the first few volumes being the insane human count that the demons side with and Laures’ rival from the demon world, who’s just an over-the-top guy.

It’s a great example of early 90s shoujo fantasy, though there is better available in English, including Basara and Fushigi Yugi. And it’s a great starting point for You Higuri. The art in it really is a high point, surprisingly so considering it was her debut work. And it only gets more and more polished from here. I was surprised to see the illustrations for a recent re-release of this series in Japanese. The artwork is quite good.

Cantarella – Go!Comi, 10 volumes, incomplete (12 volumes total, Akita Shoten): If I remember correctly, Cantarella was one of four launch titles for Go! Comi in late 2005. Cantarella is set in 15th century Italy, and is a fictionalized account of the life of Cesare Borgia. Cesare was born the cursed, illegitimate son of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, and struggles, literally, with demon possession his entire life. His one saving grace and only friend is a thief/assassin named Chiaro. As a Borgia, Cesare is forced into political games and power struggles, and even makes it to the rank of Cardinal himself before he is completely consumed by the demons that plague his existence. To make matters worse, Cesare is completely obsessed with his younger sister Lucrezia, and Lucrezia in turn is in love with him.

It’s primarily a tragic romance with a lot of fantasy thrown in. Cesare is literally becoming a demon throughout the series’ run, and he must abdicate his position as Cardinal when symptoms begin to physically manifest. It’s heavily implied that there is a relationship between Cesare and Chiaro. Unfortunately, I cannot remember if Lucrezia and Cesare actually consummate their relationship, but Chiaro figures prominently in the lives of both, and a romantic triangle develops that doesn’t work out well for anyone.

Again, the art is beautiful, and Higuri is in her element when drawing series set in historical Europe. Costumes, settings, and the beautiful Borgia family are all depicted with a lot of detail, and Cesare’s dark descent into madness and demon possession works primarily because Higuri’s art depicts the fall admirably.

Unfortunately once again, Cantarella fell just on the other side of enjoyable for me, and the interesting historical plot and romantic triangle frequently get bogged down with side characters and lengthy tangents about just how evil Cesare can be, or just how guilty Chiaro feels for betraying Cesare, or just how tragic Lucrezia is, et cetera. Still, even highly fictionalized, the Borgia family always makes for interesting subject matter, and it’s a shame the series couldn’t be finished in English. It probably would have been, but Go! Comi caught up with the Japanese version, which was on hiatus while Higuri drew Crown, and Go! Comi shuttered before the last two volumes were released in Japanese. I have the concluding chapters that ran in Princess Gold last year, but the plot is so convoluted and my grasp of Japanese so tenuous I cannot tell you how it ends.

Gorgeous Carat / Gorgeous Carat Galaxy – Blu / June, 4 volumes / 1 volume (original publisher: Shueisha): Japan loves phantom thieves, and generally when they show up in manga, I like them too. They come in all stripes, from the goofy sex-crazed Lupin III to the magical girl shoujotastic Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne to the comedic and heroic Eroica. And here we have a BL-flavored one, and it’s just as good.

Once again, we get a historical European setting, this time France in Victorian times. A poor former nobleman named Florian finds himself sinking to desperate measures in order to maintain his mother’s current lifestyle. He winds up in the clutches of a wealthy Count named Ray Courland, who is interested in Florian’s family for the sizable jewel that is rumored to be in their keeping. Ray is also a phantom thief known as Noir, and after the diamond plot in the first volume, the rest of the series appears to contain episodic stories about Noir fetching expensive trinkets, Florian landing himself in danger, et cetera. Gorgeous Carat Galaxy is a spinoff volume, but it’s basically more of the same thing. Another sequel exists in Japan called Gorgeous Carat: La Esperanza, a two-volume series that appears to have come out fairly recently.

Other than some strangely out-of-place bondage in the first volume, the BL in this series appears to be fairly light, with the relationship between Florian and Ray more implied than overt. Of course, it did come out under the Blu imprint, and I don’t think I’ve read a BLU book that hasn’t been at least a little smutty. Maybe it creeps in later.

I think this is another one of Higuri’s earlier series, or at least on the earlier side of what’s been released in English. The artwork is still lovely, and she’s still wonderful at showing you just what Victorian France looked like, but it’s not quite as polished as her later work.

Gakuen Heaven – Blu, 3 volumes, incomplete (original publisher: Biblos, 4 volumes): Here’s a strange one for you: This is an adaptation of a BL dating sim game, and each volume follows the path of one of four different romantic interests. I haven’t read this series, but the idea that it’s the same story told four times with four different outcomes is extremely interesting to me. The series recently restarted at Akita Shoten as Gakuen Heaven Revolution, and now runs several times a year in Princess Gold alongside From Eroica With Love. It dethroned that series as the most popular in the magazine. Sad!

The plot? It’s a high school BL romance manga, so… you know where all four volumes are going. I haven’t read this series, unfortunately, so I can’t get very specific. The plot of the game seems to be that the main character, Keita Ito, is mysteriously transferred to a new school in the middle of the school year. On the way, the bridge collapses and Keita is trapped on a remote island and solves mysteries while growing closer to a boy of your choice. I think the manga is a little more… romance-focused than that. In one volume, a character reveals he has a connection to Keita’s past, and Keita organizes a school festival.

I have read Gakuen Heaven Revolution in Princess Gold, though unfortunately knowing nothing about Gakuen Heaven, coupled with a tenuous grasp of Japanese, has left me understanding little of the three or so chapters that have appeared so far this year. It seems to be the same sort of light silliness, though, and I’d be surprised if anything naughty happened. While her art in this series is solid, it doesn’t shine quite as much as her period series.

Angel’s Coffin – Go! Comi, 1 volume, complete (original publisher: Akita Shoten): I’m not going to bother looking up the Japanese publisher for this one. It’s a one-shot volume along the lines of Seimaden, with a plot involving an imprisoned God that is doomed to bring a curse down on the young woman that frees him, hoping to get help winning over her true love. I haven’t read this one either, but it looks like it might predate quite a bit of the content available in English. I haven’t heard any good reviews about this one, but apparently it involves a demon, so I’m sure I’d like it.

Crown – Go! Comi, 2 volumes, incomplete (original publisher: Akita Shoten, 6 volumes total): A collaboration with writer Shinji Wada, a rare male face in the shoujo manga world who recently passed away. This is his only series in English, but he seems semi-famous in Japan, and his most well-known work is girl gangster series Sukeban Deka. This is another series set in modern times, so once again, Higuri can’t show off her strengths quite as well, but there are a few wonderful scenes, like a rather elaborate ball at the very end of the series.

The plot is basically about how poor orphan Mahiro is suddenly swept away one day by her long-lost brother and his best friend. Apparently she is being targeted by a queen of a far-away country for the jewel that she keeps, and her brother wants to protect her. I’ve only read the last volume (the Princess Gold thing again), but it seems like a fairly straightforward action/mystery kinda series, which seems to be what Wada specializes in. As far as I can tell, there’s no romance, I think the closest relationship is probably between the brother and his friend, but it’s not too close, which is par for the course for Higuri. The plot is less interesting than some of her other work, and the prospect of only getting two volumes of a potentially underwhelming six-volume series has prevented me from reading the English translation so far.

Night Head: Genesis – Del Rey/Kodansha, 3 volumes (original publisher: Kodansha): I think this is only three volumes long. Del Rey released the first two, and I think Kodansha USA announced at one point they would be releasing the third volume, which shocked me at the time because this series is awful and doesn’t really deserve the rescue. I don’t see a listing or release date for it, but Kodansha’s still getting off the ground, so maybe that’s coming later.

It commits the sin of being an adaptation, and manga adaptations are usually not great. You Higuri does the best she can, and actually apologizes in the end notes for having to make so many story cuts for space reasons. This manga adaptation is based on an anime based on a live action drama series based on a novel that came out in the 90s, so it was doomed from the start. There’s very few people that could salvage that sort of train wreck.

This is a seinen series, and I think the original novel is very action-based and male-oriented. In a very unlikely, but very concentrated nexus of shoujo manga talent, not only does You Higuri do the adaptation for this spinoff, Makoto Tateno did the manga adaptation of the original novel, and no less than CLAMP did the illustrations and cover for the novel itself.

It involves a pair of psychic twins, a mutated AIDS vaccine, world destruction, scientists, and secret societies. But not in the good way. Other than the premise, the details are so abridged everything simply moves forward in a very straightforward manner. Two twins, one with destructive psychic powers and one who can sense the feelings of others, escape from their lifelong protector, who killed their parents and imprisoned them to keep their powers away from the world. Once free, they’re somehow caught up in the big world domination conspiracy, and their naivete somehow manages to keep them away from skilled bad guy opponents.

Higuri has very nice, polished seinen artwork, and the story is interesting, but it’s simply too stripped down to be enjoyable. Huge chunks of the story, such as the main character’s pasts and some key motivations, are left out in favor of forward momentum, which isn’t really Higuri’s fault. For a good read with a similar story, check out ES by Fuyumi Soryu.

Ludwig II – 2 omnibus volumes, June, complete (original publisher: Kadokawa Shoten): This. This series right here is why I’m a fan of Higuri. Another period story, this one takes us to Bavaria at the end of the 19th century to look at the life of Ludwig II, the allegedly mad and factually final King of Bavaria. Higuri takes some liberties with his biography, chief among them giving Ludwig a gay lover, but everything she does well comes together in this story. It’s what I wanted out of Cantarella distilled into two volumes.

She does a wonderful job of portraying Ludwig on the cusp of sanity. Obsessed and driven, yes, but mad, no. He is negligent about some of the national matters, but he is a very generous patron of the arts, and his support of Wagner is a key plot point, as are the construction of his various castles. Of course, the fact that the castles are constructed with state money is also an issue, as are the political factors at the time that resulted in his abdication in 1918 and the run-up to pre-WWII Germany. But the story stops shortly after his abdication for very good reasons. It has a rather abrupt and unsatisfying ending, but it reflects history so well that I can’t see it ending any other way.

It’s a romance manga, too, of course. Ludwig has a primary lover that remains a big part of the story throughout, but he has others that he sees, and he goes through bouts of obsession with said lover, and others as well. He has a lot of personal issues, and the tragedy and passion in his life are conveyed very well. Honestly, the fictional Ludwig likely bears no resemblance whatsoever to his historical counterpart, but it’s such a good story that I don’t care.

The art is once again up to the task, and I’m actually a little surprised to see that Ludwig was written around the same time as Gorgeous Carat. The art looks a lot more polished and ornate here, but perhaps it’s because the setting and time period are so important to the story in this case. Elaborate period costumes, beautiful castles, extravagant operas, and even Ludwig’s bouts of darkness all seem like they were made to show off Higuri’s artistic strength, and it works beautifully. Kaori Yuki is one of the only other artists I can think of that can match the elaborate beauty of Higuri’s period pieces.

7 Responses to “Artist Spotlight: You Higuri”

  1. JRB Says:

    If you have the opportunity to pick up Crown cheap, or get it from a library, it’s totally worth a read; it’s a goofy shounen action-fest papered over with a shoujo aesthetic, with heavily-armed bishonen who wear camo and bulletproof vests under evening clothes, hot crossdressing assassins, and way too much stuff blowing up for a shoujo manga. The second volume ends just as the plot ramps up, but the plot’s not the reason to read it anyway. :)

  2. ZeroSD Says:

    Never underestimate “solid mid-tier writer consistently selling” :) They can be the bread and butter of smaller companies/imprints.

  3. […] discussing the manga of You Higuri and why she is popular here despite the unevenness of her […]

  4. Connie Says:

    ZeroSD: You know, you’re right. I think I always assumed every publisher had a flagship title to carry the day, but that’s only the very largest ones. It never occurred to me that Go! Comi, or even CMX, didn’t really have a series that crept into the best-seller lists. They did have You Higuri, Arina Tanemura, Oh! great, and Chika Shiomi though, and that must’ve worked for at least a little while.

    JRB: I do have the first two volumes, they’ve just drifted to the bottom of my stack of to-read stuff. I have heard a lot of good things about it though, and your summary has definitely piqued my interest even more. Writing that article made me want to read more You Higuri, so I think Crown will be next, along with the rest of Gorgeous Carat. Thanks for the recommendation!

  5. […] always nice to see a well-researched historical manga. It reminds me a lot of the work of You Higuri, and Aoike’s influences show a great deal in Higuri’s work. It’s something I can […]

  6. […] might remember that I’m a big fan of You Higuri. I’ve featured her before, and since then, I’ve read Gorgeous Carat, so my admiration has only […]

  7. HS Says:

    Great list, thank you! I’ve always admired her art. As for Ludwig II – the historical Ludwig actually was gay and his lover in the manga was his real life lover. She actually portrayed him quite well, I did some research on him years ago. There’s a fantastic 1972 historical film called “Ludwig,” directed by Visconti. The manga is actually not too far off from the film, with some exceptions and exaggerations on Higuri’s part. I’m sure she based the manga on the film in part. I see there’s also a 2012 German film about Ludwig II…I’ll have to watch that now. haha

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