Artist Spotlight: Arina Tanemura
January 21, 2012
Very rarely do we get to see a mangaka’s entire body of work in English. I can’t think of very many instances, actually. We’ve seen all of CLAMP, save for a few side projects. Rumiko Takahashi has had all her series translated into English, with the notable exception being the last 2/3rds of Urusei Yatsura. We’re missing a volume of short stories from Eiichiro Oda. We’ve seen almost all of Fumi Yoshinaga’s work, save for two one-shots and her newest series. All but the newest volume of In the Walnut may be available from Toko Kawai. So Arina Tanemura is in rare company indeed, as all her books have been translated into English at this point, save for a one-shot that came out at the end of last year in Japan.
Tanemura debuted in 1997, and has been working steadily ever since. She specializes in shoujo fantasy/romance, and her work is very much a textbook example of exactly what a shoujo manga should be. Lots of romance, action, excellent character development, a little bit of humor, unusual plot twists, and very, very pretty art.
While it’s true that her character designs are in a Ribon Magazine house style (particularly the hair and eyes), even in her very first story she uses an unusually ornate style that, while a bit stiff, was still overflowing with cute details and lacked the usual composition and flow problems young artists often have. Over the years she polished her art and made it more organic, more detailed, and now lavishes a lot of attention in particular to costumes and settings. Her books really are a feast for the eyes, and few can measure up to the insane amounts of adorable that flow off of every page.
Her work always appears in Ribon magazine, and the age range on that tends to skew slightly younger. That’s apparent in her early work, but later series become surprisingly mature, and she has a depth to her writing that makes it appeal to shoujo fans of even my age. While most of her books were published by Viz and are still in print and widely advertised, still, Tanemura is worth discussing and celebrating, and this guide can hopefully shed some light on why.
I.O.N. (1 volume) – This volume tells the simple story of a girl named Ion. She’s a typical high school student, and has a rather superstitious habit of chanting the three letters of her first name when she needs a little luck. The boy she has a crush on is head of the Paranormal Research Club at school, and after touching a mysterious substance he was developing, Ion finds that her latent psychic abilities now unlock when she chants her name. She uses these powers for various bits of do-gooding, and a third boy shows up for a little bit of romantic triangle fun.
This was Tanemura’s debut volume of work, first appearing in 1997. While neither the plot nor the characters are anything special, the story is still fairly charming and a really fun read. It’s hard not to like Ion as a heroine, and while the love interest is hard to sympathize with, the romantic rival character adds some fun and is easy to root for. I was a little surprised with how much I liked this. Debut works tend to be rough, and it’s rare to see character development and story flow as good as this in such a young author (at the time, Tanemura would have been 18 or 19). I went into the volume not expecting much, and I usually dislike stories with psychic powers like this, so it won me over despite my negative outlook.
Short-Tempered Melancholic and Other Stories (1 volume) – This is a book of Tanemura’s debut short stories. The first story, “Short-Tempered Melancholic,” is about a female ninja with both an important guard duty and a boy she has a crush on. When the boy suggests that she’s not very feminine, the kunoichi decides to promptly give up on being a ninja. The two stories in the middle of the volume, “Their Love is Nonfiction” and “Rainy Days Are For Romantic Heroines” lean very heavily on standard romance plot devices, but use them to great effect. “Nonfiction” is about a pair of penpals that are about to meet face to face, but of course the heroine has used a photo of her much better-looking friend in her letters and is scared. “Romantic Heroines” is about a girl that conveniently forgets her umbrella in order to share with the boy she has a crush on. And Tanemura’s debut work, “Second Chance Love,” rounds out the volume with some fairly standard high school romance.
“Second Chance Love” is the weakest story in the volume, which isn’t much of a criticism. The rest of the stories here are great, and “Short-Tempered Melancholic” was so good that it feels like it would have been better expanded into a 1-2 volume series of its own. My favorite part of the volume was definitely the two stories in the middle, though, which told relatively old and tired stories in a very fresh and entertaining way. Tanemura writes really fun characters that are easy to root for, and that’s definitely a good skill to have when it comes to shoujo short stories. Again, it’s hard for me to believe that this volume was a rookie effort, and I wound up enjoying it immensely, which I so rarely do when it comes to shoujo short stories.
Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne (7 volumes) – Maron is on a task from God. God’s power has been scattered, and bits have been enclosed in works of art. In order to keep these bits of power from falling into the hands of demons, Maron transforms into Kaitou Jeanne and “seals” the works of art. But far from being easy, Jeanne has to dodge the police as well as a rival Kaitou named Sinbad. Not surprisingly, Sinbad’s alter ego is Chiaki, the irritating new transfer student in Maron’s class. Maron’s best friend Miyako is also the daughter of the police chief, who wants to stop the art thief Jeanne at all costs. But Jeanne has an ally in Finn Fish, the messenger from God who guides Jeanne to the bits of power, and conversely, Sinbad has his own little supernatural helper named Access Time. There’s more to the simple game of art thievery than it first appears, however, and Finn Fish and Access Time wind up being more than simple helpers…
I love this series, and it is my favorite of all the ones featured here. All the characters are easy to like, it’s got the right balance of humor, action, and romance, and the plot twists that come up later are not to be believed. Maron makes for a strong and believable heroine, and I liked that details of her school life, like a big rhythmic gymnastics tournament, were also a big part of the story. Several parts of the story get genuinely sad, and I still adore the ending, something I grew to appreciate more after I finished Full Moon. And I always admire a story like this that is clearly written for a younger audience, but has the power to really draw in all ages. When I can read and genuinely enjoy a magical girl series, it’s definitely something special. I’m a little ashamed to admit how much I like this, especially since it was the first of Tanemura’s series and the later ones are definitely better, but this one will always have a special place in my heart. Plus, it’s really hard to not like a series that has characters with names like Finn Fish and Access Time in it.
Time Stranger Kyoko (3 volumes) – Kyoko is princess of her country, but has been living undercover her entire life and enjoys a life at school as a regular student. But when her 16th birthday arrives, she can no longer pretend to be a regular girl and must take up the responsibilities of ruling the kingdom. However, the King offers her a way out. Kyoko can wake her twin sister Ui, who has been sleeping since she was born, by gathering 12 orbs from 12 Strangers. Kyoko gathers the first orb from Ui herself, a power the allows her to time-travel, and must search the kingdom for the other 11 orbs.
A 3-volume series with a plot about collecting 12 orbs is something I never thought would work. I disliked the first volume of this series, and had a rather pessimistic outlook for the other two. Much to my surprise, the story progresses very smoothly, and there’s enough time for Kyoko to collect all 12 orbs and have a rather astonishing finale to the whole thing. The resolution is a plot development that, to this day, shocks and delights me. I was not expecting such a twist, especially with such a generic fantasy plot in play. I did think the premise was a bit strange (“wake your sleeping sister so you don’t have to be princess! I don’t know why she’s sleeping! who cares if she’s suited to the job!”), and the 12 orbs thing is very generic. But it doesn’t play out that way at all, and this turned out to be a surprise favorite and among the very best of Tanemura’s work.
Full Moon (7 volumes) – 12-year-old Mizuki wants nothing more than to be a pop singer. However, her music-hating grandmother is very much against this career choice, and won’t even let Mizuki take singing lessons. Worse yet, Mizuki has throat cancer, which makes it difficult for her to speak, let alone sing. And if that wasn’t sad enough, two shinigami named Meroko and Takuto appear and accidentally tell Mizuki that she only has one year left to live. She begs the shinigami, and moved by her earnest wish, they use their magic powers to let her turn into 16-year-old Full Moon, a persona Mizuki uses to eventually become a pop sensation. But keeping a career as a celebrity secret from your grandmother when you’re 12 years old is a hard thing. Mizuki’s terminal cancer also complicates matters. And the shinigami are a whole different set of problems, from the fact they aren’t supposed to use their magic to help the dying to the way they became shinigami in the first place…
This series is all sorts of dark and depressing, if you couldn’t tell by the plot summary. But buried under all the tears, the initial theme is definitely one about living life to the fullest while you can, and I liked the way it chose to deliver that message initially. I also liked that it had a preordained sad outcome and a time limit, and watching everything leading up to that moment throughout the series was one of the most interesting things about it. And I know it sounds morbid, but the best part really was watching young Mizuki live her life the best she could while she was able. I was completely in love with this after one volume. But the story takes a turn for the ridiculous-even-in-context when the details of Takuto’s human life are revealed, and the ending was so disappointing it made me angry. This may be because I was expecting a particular ending the entire time I was reading it, and it may be simply because the early volumes were just so good, but I was furious when I finished that last volume. It’s been years, and I still haven’t forgiven Full Moon for its ending.
Gentlemen’s Alliance Cross (11 volumes) – Haine is a poor girl who is sold/adopted into a wealthy family, and winds up attending the high-class Imperial Academy for high school. She feels like a fish out of water, and is bullied mercilesslly, until circumstances send her into the elite student council, presided over by a boy named Shizumasa. Haine is shocked, because Shizumasa is the same boy who saved her years ago when she had been wasting her life in a dangerous teen gang. But Shizumasa doesn’t remember Haine at all, and his cold and distant demeanor are worlds away from the boy that gave her kind words years ago. Circumstances land Haine in the position of “Platinum,” the highest-ranked female member of the school and essentially Shizumasa’s boyfriend. While awkward at first, Haine uses the position to investigate why it is that Shizumasa has changed so much over the years.
I waited and waited for fantasy elements to pop up in this story, but they didn’t. This is a completely straight high school romance/drama, but don’t be disappointed. It has more soapy turns and backstory than you can shake a stick at, and is a ridiculously addictive read. I can’t honestly say it’s a must-read, and there’s nothing in particular I can point to that it does well. But Tanemura’s usual character development is in full force here, and the plot twists and dramatic romance bits make it more than worthwhile for any romance manga junky. I was also impressed that the energy that usually goes into the fantasy flourishes in Tanemura’s art was poured into the highly detailed and individualistic uniform designs and school setting. The Imperial Academy is a beautiful building.
Mistress Fortune (1 volume) – Kisaki and Giniro are a pair of 14-year-old psychics that fight threatening aliens named Ebe under the name Mistress Fortune. Their team is only one unit of an international organization that protects the world from the Ebe, and Kisaki and Giniro are proud to be part of it. But organization rules forbid the members to know each other in real life, and Kisaki finds herself in a bad spot when she begins to fall in love with Giniro.
I don’t know if it’s because the story was too stereotypical, or because I dislike psychic manga, but this was my least favorite by far of all of the books I’ve read by Tanemura. It’s true that the plot follows a pretty rigid structure – the story is told in three chapters, the first of which introduces the characters, powers, and organization; the second focuses on the romance between Kisaki and Giniro and reveals a sad backstory for the latter; and the third chapter is the big heroic finish. Sadly, there were no surprises for me after the first ten pages, and the twists are what I love best in Tanemura’s manga. But there are a couple of funny side stories with the same characters in the back of the volume, and I loved that the English language editor of the book (and all of Tanemura’s books), Nancy Thistlethwaite, was a character in the American branch of the psychic organization.
Sakura Hime (9+ volumes) – Tanemura’s current series, this one is a period piece set in the far past. Sakura is a lonely girl who was promised in marriage at a very early age to Aoba, the youngest son of the Emperor. For years, Sakura waits for Aoba to travel to her house and introduce himself, and she is overjoyed when she turns 16 and is finally invited to stay at the Imperial Palace and meet Aoba. However, Aoba turns out to be completely different than the gallant prince she’s imagined all these years. And if that wasn’t enough, Sakura also finds out that she’s inherited the cursed blood of the moon people, and turns into the monster-slaying princess Kaguya when she looks at the full moon. Because moon people are prone to turning into monsters and slaying loved ones, such powers and connections are a death sentence, and Sakura is hunted down like an animal. Later, she meets up with her long-lost brother, who has been planning his revenge on humanity.
As you might guess from the description, this series is much darker and more sophisticated than Tanemura’s other series. It’s got more depth and story going for it, as well, and Tanemura is taking her time introducing the cast, their various points of view, and the moon people/human conflict. I’m loving all the mythology she’s tying into the story, and the artistic flourishes she puts into the setting and costumes are exquisite. I have a problem with Aoba, who committed some irrevocably terrible actions early on in the story, and I’m also having a tougher time sympathizing with these characters (possibly because all the usual traces of humor are gone, but also maybe because this is the first time the story lacks a contemporary setting). However, this is shoujo fantasy at its finest, and while it doesn’t have the same sort of developed setting as, say, The Story of Saiunkoku, it’s still an easy series to read and like, and it’s difficult not to get caught up in the drama an action if you’re a fan of shoujo fantasy in the first place. I also like that it doesn’t get bogged down with a lot of real-world detail. Tanemura mostly just uses the period setting as an excuse to draw elaborate costumes.