I found Arata: The Legend to be an entertaining fantasy tale that allowed creator Yuu Watase to thoughtfully defy the conventional wisdom that shojo and shonen are distinct categories of Japanese comics.
The plot of Arata is both simple and engaging -- two teenage boys from different worlds, both named Arata, switch places and are forced to reckon with their strange, and fairly dangerous, new circumstances. The book's first chapter sets the stage for later action by showing us the problems fantasy-world Arata faces, the first and most pressing being persecution for not being born a girl. His very existence upsets matrilineal succession in his kingdom, but his gender becomes moot when a revolutionary faction take it upon themselves to murder the current princess and then blame poor Arata for it. When the book then flips to the Arata from "our" world, Watase efficiently sketches a moving portrait of a very relatable, but terribly lonely boy who seems ill-equipped to tackle his own problems -- most of which are born of his social isolation -- but may just make him perfect foil for the evil forces gathering in the other world.
The reason for the switch is no more than a MacGuffin in volume 1, but still useful as it moves each boy to the other one's world and explains away why those closest to them don't actually perceive that any exchange has even taken place. While the Arata who enters our world is simply overwhelmed by modern Japan, the Arata who enters the fantasy world brings his own interpretation of justice to the dangerous political scheming of some nasty revolutionaries. The fantasy elements of the story are also furthered when our-world-Arata is bestowed powers when he wields the "family" sword (i.e. the other Arata's family), while fantasy-world-Arata, who was of no use on that score, has yet to discover what he has to offer contemporary life. One wonders if he has the requisite confidence to "fix" the other Arata's pathetic social life.
In the author's notes, Yuu Watase states that when she created Arata she didn't "didn't care about things like setting and genre," she just wanted to write about a "boy's journey." Watase has left an indelible footprint upon fantasy manga with her 90's shojo series Fushigi Yuugi and Ceres: The Celestial Legend and now she gracefully adapts the lessons she's learned in those arenas to create an accessible comic that has a lot of crossover appeal. Arata might not revolutionize the genre but there's something incredibly solid and well-crafted about it. While I don't believe for a minute Watase wasn't thinking about "genre" when she constructed the story, there's no doubt that she knows to create the whole package when it comes to comic art, narrative, setting and plot. As always, Watase's art is incredibly pleasing, and she shows a keen attention to both the fantasy setting and important emotional information through her character-work. She's got a fantastic handle on how to make the fantasy setting seem real and grounded and yet so obviously not of our world.
In the end, the categorization of "shonen" really only tells us that this was published in a shonen magazine and I suppose that makes it useful in some ways. What is more important, though, is the name of the creator attached to the work and in this instance, that name is a tried and trusted "brand" in the world of fantasy manga aimed at a teen audience. Yet in spite of the Watase brand, I want to stress that nothing feels formulaic or stale here -- somehow this work feels fresh and energetic and I'm quite looking forward to seeing how the two Aratas' journeys progress in upcoming volumes.
Review copy provided by Viz Media.