Danielle Leigh's Reading Diary -- Hero Tales vol 1

Hero Tales may be of special interest to North American manga readers -- it is drawn by Hiromu Arakawa (of Full Metal Alchemist fame) and written by Huang Jin Zhou (who is perhaps not an actual person but a "unit comprised of Hiromu Arakawa, Genco and Studio Flag" according to bakaupdates.com...whatever that means).   However, the use of a Chinese name for the "author" makes sense since the story takes place in a fictionalized historical (Chinese) Empire.

A number of Japanese manga, such as Fushigi Yugi and Saiunkoku Monogatari, have previously made use of Chinese cultural history and legends.  Hero Tales does so as well, but puts an intelligent shonen spin on its story.  Unlike Fushigi Yugi, which uses a framing device of a modern girl falling into the past by accident, Hero Tales focuses upon the fulfillment of a legend in which seven heroes -- who represent the seven stars of the Big Dipper -- have the power to throw the Empire into complete chaos or to save it.

On first glance, the title's main character -- Taitou -- appears to be your average shonen hero who wants to become strong, but on closer inspection he is much more interesting than that.  He seems unconcerned about the fact he has yet to complete his coming-of-age-ceremony, which is an event where a young man completes a fight with an older, skilled warrior.  Taitou hasn't completed the ceremony because he is bad at fighting, but because he yet to come across a fighter skilled enough to make him accept defeat.   This twisted logic just makes me like him more, I think.  When a disciplined martial arts master comes to town -- called for the express purpose of defeating Taitou -- a series of complicated events are set in motion.  Taitou's status as one of the heroes of legend is revealed but he isn't just any hero.  He is one of the two heroes who are destined to fight each other and draw the world into a state of destruction.

After Taitou accepts his defeat like a "man," an ancient sword is bestowed upon him that can only be drawn by a true hero.  Which means Taitou can't use it just yet...however, his untapped and alarmingly out-of-control powers are awakened when a warrior-for-hire steals his sacred sword and threatens his sister's life.  With power rushing unchecked through his body, Taitou practically destroys himself with the force of his anger and his lack of control.  With the sword is successfully stolen, and Taitou's identity as a "hero" of legend revealed, the manga heads quickly into the shonen quest narrative path.  Taitou, the skilled warrior who defeated him, and Taitou's sister, Laila, set out to retrieve the sword and track down the other "heroes" of legend.

Unlike a lot of shonen titles, however, once the main story is set in motion, there's no sense of stagnation or of drawing out an epic quest for the sake of a quest.  Instead, progress happens immediately, as the group comes across another "hero" (each of the seven heroes are marked by a special tattoo on their bodies) and more of the legend starts to unfold before the group's very eyes.  Taitou is a likable shonen lead who is rather emphatic about his designs on power -- not only as fighter but as a countryman.  He likes to begin sentences with the phrase, "When I become Emperor...."  While others like to laugh at his audacity, it is clear there are some very dangerous people who take him seriously as a rival, and one rather scary badass who actually sees Taitou as his fated rival.

Hero Tales is a rather excellent configuration of shonen tropes -- it tends to take the best of them and excises many of the excesses (such as fights that last forever, the emo-ness of the hero).  The art, of course, is quite excellent and while Arakawa offers many familiar character types (the main antagonist reminds me very strongly of Bradley from FMA), she excels in both her character work and in her fully realized representation of a powerful and potentially corrupt Empire.

Review copy provided by Yen Press.

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