Once upon a time there was a young girl experiencing her first love in the 21st century in Japan. Back in the 14th BC century in the Hettite empire, a powerful queen schemes to place her son on the throne. In order to achieve this a sacrifice is required. The young girl is literally sucked back in time and swept away by the political conspiracies. She’s called to survive to an unknown to her era and lead her way through traps. The third prince will give her a helping hand and will come to depend on her.
This is a title that sold 16 million copies in Japan and was awarded the Shogakukan Manga Award in 2000.
Red River, for everyone who knows me well, holds a special place in my heart as a shoujo manga. I am very proud of owning all the 28 volumes and when the collection was completed, I hurrayed. The first time I read it, I saw through it in 3 days, devouring almost 9 volumes each day -it was that thrilling to me. A few years later I finished reading it for the second time; although I might frown at certain parts of the story now that I’m a more experienced reader and more aware of feminist narratives, I still feel inspired, so writing about it was in due course for awhile now.
As I’ve already said, Red River makes for a riveting read. The reasons behind this are not only the big dose of gripping adventure but also the way the manga is organized: Shinohara uses very often a small number of panels per page fluctuating from a splash page to three-four panels; and where there are more than four panels she leaves one big panel without outline. This way the page breathes, doesn’t feel stuffed, and the pace of reading is fast but not rushed. Additionally, there isn’t clear separation between chapters with chapter covers and numbered chapter titles, but occasionally there’s a white page with a small illustration on the bottom right, thus the reader transitions from one scene to another without significant interruptions. Moreover, the old shoujo artwork suits perfectly the historical setting and so does the yellowish, rough-textured paper -they enhance the experience, making it more engrossing.
The story intrigues the interest of the reader by using the right ingredients at the right quantity, mixing drama with adventure and romance. Although romance is there and does have motivational role, it’s never overwhelming; neither is it used to undermine the protagonist’s position. It also knows to switch between action and political situations within the court or social issues so as not to tire the reader. After all, suspense isn’t possible to be created if there’s constatly heightened activity. And despite the repetitive scheming of the queen, the traps themselves have variations, thus you won’t get bored easily.
The setting itself is an important ingredient, too. Beyond the allure an ancient civilization might have to the eyes of history-lovers, the Hettite empire of 14th century BC seems to have been selected intentionally and not on a whim: it’s the era when the empire prospered and tried to solve its disputes with the neighboring countries peacefully. Its ruling system being one of the fairer among the wider region -with the king’s power being balanced by that of the queen and the senate- is mentioned more than once. Multiculturality is another appealing trait with which the reader might be able to relate (the horse breeder is Hurrian and the maids are Hattis) and a culture where men -of some social standing- wear jewelries and clothes with floral patterns makes for a challenge of gender stereotypes. Such an environment calls the reader to be positive towards the work.
The cast is quite extended and some may be sceptic about remembering all of the characters and/or reading characters not well-developed. I can guarantee that you’ll remember every single one of them because they have distinct design and an incident following them to remember them by. A part of the supporting cast, especially those in the army and the serving staff, might be simply likeable, but the antagonists are always complex and don’t fall into cookie-cutter villain territory. Even Queen Nakia and her servant Uhri, who for the bigger part of the series are presented as malevolent and obsessed with power, are shown to be victims of harsh circumstances.
The main characters, Yuri and Kail, are fleshed out and mature together, affecting each other positevely and living to serve their people. Kail starts out as a playboy and Yuri’s protector through means of magic and political power who keeps his guard high at all times only to come to entrust her with his army and protection. Yuri is introduced as a little girl who acts on a whim and is unable to stand on her own only to steadily become a woman who’s determined to carry out a military operation and shield the people she cares about. Both of them have sharp minds, something that makes them perfect for each other and which rarely is highlighted in love relationships in shoujo manga. Some may claim they are too idealized, but honestly who cares? It’s a great fantasy tale!
Yuri specifically makes one of the most notable female leads. She isn’t just badass, she’s a whole human being. One of the first things she decides is to learn to yield a sword and she masters it. She has empathy for her enemies and is very caring towards people in need. She’s selfless in that aspect, not taking advantage of the prince being favourable towards her, and setting others’ well-being as priority. This doesn’t mean she isn’t scared of her own life and body integrity: She’s voiced being lonely and frightened in many occasions. She tries though to make the best out of every situation. Yuri is shown to have pangs of mild jealousy, too -she’s a ‘normal’ person. And that’s amazing in my opinion. She’s the Ishtar, she’s the commander-in-chief of the Hettite army, she’s the just queen-to-be, and she’s also a teen who has to face many difficulties and tragedies, torn away from her family. She’s the petite tomboy and she’s the gorgeous dancer who used her charm to infiltrate the opponent’s field.
Generally, I’m content with Yuri’s treatment by other characters, too. Her maids do want her to stay with them and become their queen, but they also say that they desire Yuri’s happiness, so if she wants to go back to her century, they’ll support her. Kail sends her a message with a heart on it after Yuri indicates this as an alternative way for him to show his love instead of sex. He furthermore apologizes to her when he yelled at her for making him worry. In another scene we peak into his thoughts where he would have liked to keep her safe in his palace but admitting no one ever would dare do such a thing. At a time when he went to force himself onto her sexually, Yuri’s maids intervene and beg him to stop, while his councilor reprimands him. However, Yuri is multiple times on the receiving end of being pinned down and disrobed. It is kind of expected given the era, but it still doesn’t sit well with me. The only consoling thing about that is the fact that the men wanting to make her theirs value her mind more than her beauty.
Lastly, I should give trigger warnings for: skinning, at least four deaths, sexual harassment and assault miscarriage, slavery. Also: explicit sexual content and nudity (Egyptian women are proud to show off their breasts).
I hope I’ve convinced you that this series is worth your time. If you can’t find some volumes in printed format, worry not. Viz sells the whole series digitally, too!