Women of Mangaka: Yuu Watase

Yuu Watase character lineup banner

During the 1990s, a time of relatively few shojo manga series (or manga series in general, really) being translated to English, one of the cornerstones that everyone at least knew of was Fushigi Yuugi, an anime based on the manga by Yuu Watase. For lots of girls of that age, the protagonist, high school girl Miaka, was someone they could relate to, perhaps even wish to be. As newer works enter Watase’s body of work and newer fans enter the fandom, that figure of aspiration may change, perhaps to the battered but unbroken Aya, the magical girl Alice, or the warrior maiden Takako. But for me, looking over Watase’s body of work, the woman I find most relatable and inspiring is Watase herself.

A Start in Shogakukan

Watase was practically born with a pen in her hand, drawing and doodling from age five. Her early life was not easy, spotted with bullying during her elementary school years, an experience that would disillusion her to religion and become formative in her later series. Things improved when she went to an all girls’ school in her middle and high school years. She later stated that her only regret was that she missed out on dating boys.

Her first brush with manga came at age seventeen with the Shogakukan Newcomer Award, a contest for teens to submit short manga stories. Watase, an avid reader of shonen manga, initially wanted to submit for the shonen category, but her work, at 32 pages, far surpassed the 16 page limit. So she submitted to the shojo category instead (with its 32 page limit), and won. While the change in genre may have seemed inconsequential at the time, it set a place for her in the world of shoujo that would hold her for decades to come.

A scant year later, in 1989, her first work was published in Shogakukan’s Sho-Comi: Pajama de Ojama (パジャマでおじゃま, An Intrusion in Pajamas). It was about a girl who uses an old Chinese charm to get into the room of her crush by getting into (the same type of) his pants. Despite its importance as Watase’s first piece, it doesn’t appear to have ever been republished or included in any of her graphic novels, so those who want to complete their Watase collection are going to have a hard time of it.

A Mysterious Manga: Fushigi Yuugi

1992 saw her first, and arguably most successful, manga series: Fushigi Yuugi (ふしぎ遊戯, The Mysterious Play). It revolves around an ordinary high schooler, Miaka Yuuki, who stumbles into a China-esque fantasy world after opening a magical tome. In that world, she’s asked by the emperor to gather the seven stars of Suzaku in order to become the Priestess of Suzaku. Once done, she’ll be able to summon the wish-granting Suzaku, who can also grant her wish (to go to high school with her best friend.) When asked what inspired Fushigi Yuugi, Watase compared the fictional land of Hong-Nan to the real life trial of exam hell and other similar metaphorical gauntlets. Miaka’s eventual return to the real world signifies that she has overcome those trials.

For many female anime fans of the ’90s, Fushigi Yuugi was a touchstone for fandom similar to Sailor Moon: everyone knew it, and many loved it for its (unusual) centering of a female protagonist and a reverse harem (the seven stars Miaka seeks out are all handsome men.) At the same time, with the series’ rising popularity, it drew criticism from those (often women) who felt that Miaka was not proactive enough in the story and that being at the center of several men who held various levels of romantic or platonic feelings toward her was wish-fulfillment and unrealistic. (A criticism, I note, that was never leveraged at other male-centered harem shows of its time, such as Tenchi Muyo and Love Hina.) I think this came about because Fushigi Yuugi was one of the first works to focus on an action plot with a female protagonist. While classified as a shojo work because of its centering of romantic relationships, the plot and tropes are more similar to shonen works, not quite fitting into either box. In that way, Fushigi Yuugi paved the way for female-oriented fantasy works to find their own footing, from the popular Red River (a.k.a. Anatolia Story) in 1995 to the more recent Yona of the Dawn.

Fushigi Yuugi was brought to US shores by Viz Media, starting with a partial release of the first eight volumes in 1998, the full series in 2003, and omnibus editions in 2009. It was also one of the late ’90s titles to be picked up by the now-defunct Singapore publisher Chuang Yi, known to the US fansub community by their often wildly different translated names. It would also inspire an anime series, two short OVAs, a series of light novel side stories, and eventually, a new manga series.

The Dark Star: Ceres, Celestial Legend

In 1996, shortly after the end of Fushigi Yuugi, Watase’s next series began: Ayashi no Ceres (妖しのセレス, The Mystery of Ceres, released in English as Ceres: Celestial Legend). On her 16th birthday, Aya Mikage learns that she’s the reincarnation of a divine spirit, Ceres, who wants to murder her entire family, as revenge for stealing her celestial robe. Naturally, they try to murder her first. If that wasn’t bad enough, she also finds out her twin brother is the reincarnation of the divine spirit who caused Ceres’s desire for revenge, and said spirit begins taking control of her brother’s body to continue his torment of Ceres. Aya goes on the run, warding off the multi-pronged attack of her family on her life, her brother on her spirit, and Ceres herself asserting control over Aya’s body. Her eventual steadfast (and often sole) ally is Toya, an amnesiac seeking his past from the Mikage family, who eventually becomes romantically involved with Aya.

Unlike Fushigi Yuugi, which has frequent moments of levity and friendship and overtones of optimism, Ceres: Celestial Legend is almost unrelentingly dark, with disaster compounding upon disaster, culminating in an ending that is at best bittersweet. (Sorry, George R. R. Martin. Yuu Watase was doing grim-dark before it was cool.) And while the world of Fushigi Yuugi was a metaphor for real-world trials, the character of Ceres was a symbol of the sexism inherent in Japanese society, from the thoughtless stealing of her celestial robe to the disregarding of her feelings about it. Notably, Aya, another woman, is the one to try and help her regain her stolen robe.

While not as popular in the states as Fushigi Yuugi, it was well-received and well-liked, especially by fans of Fushigi Yuugi, who collected the unflipped Viz rerelease of Ceres: Celestial Legend alongside the unflipped rerelease of Fushigi Yuugi in 2003. Its deep themes and mature tone also got Yuu Watase a Shogakukan Manga Award in 1997.

The Inbetween Years: Four More For the Books

Unknown to many US audiences, Watase was penning a second series at the same time as Ceres: Celestial Legend called Appare Jipangu! (天晴じぱんぐ, Bravo, Japan!). This three-volume work features Yusura, a girl who uses a magical staff to suck the sadness out of people and then go literally beating the cause of the sadness with it. Watase wrote the lighthearted series as relief from the dark, mature Ceres: Celestial Legend. Unusually, Watase elected to have the series released directly in graphic novel format, rather than being serialized, so she could work on it at her own pace. Also unusually, it has never been picked up for US release.

Changes continued with Imadoki! (イマドキ!, Heartbeat now!) which began in 2000. Set in a ritzy high school, it focuses on the transfer student Tanpopo (dandelion) who strikes up friendships (and a romantic relationship) with some of her fellow students through a totally-not-against-school-rules-we-promise gardening club. Unlike her previous series, the closest it gets to fantasy is that Tanpopo has a pet fox. Like them, though, it doesn’t shy away from the more mature elements of high schoolers having sex or getting pregnant. Viz released the English version in 2004.

The end of Imadoki! overlapped with the beginning of Alice 19th, a Wonderland-inspired work. After saving a white rabbit, Alice Seno is given a magical girl-esque power over communication through Lotis Words. These words can allow someone to access another person’s inner core and change them for the better. They can also change things for the worse, as Alice discovers after a fight with her older sister accidentally makes her disappear. It was released by Viz in the US starting in 2003, concurrent with the rereleases of Fushigi Yuugi and Ceres: Celestial Legend.

And that series was immediately followed by a six-book series, Zettai Kareshi (絶対彼氏, Absolute Boyfriend) featuring a girl who accidentally orders a custom-made boyfriend. Like her other series, Viz released this, bringing it to the US in 2006. It was also picked up by Chuang Yi and proved surprisingly popular in Asia, where it has been made into a live action series in Japan, Taiwan, and soon South Korea.

Mystery, Continued: Fushigi Yuugi Genbu Kaiden

It’s hardly unusual for an author to go back and revisit or expand on the work that made them a household name. In the case of Fushigi Yuugi, Watase had left herself an easy opening over a decade prior. Its pantheon numbers four, inspired by the four sacred beasts present in Asian mythology, but Fushigi Yuugi only utilized two, Suzaku and Seiryu. One of the priestesses of the remaining two beasts were stated to have lived prior to Miaka’s adventure: the priestess of Genbu is covered in Fushigi Yuugi: Genbu Kaiden (玄武開伝, The Unsealed Legend of Genbu).

Genbu Kaiden is set in 1923, a time of growing industrialization in Japan, marred by a decades-long tuberculosis epidemic. The story focuses on Takiko Okuda, the naginata-wielding daughter of the magical book’s translator, who gets sucked into said book during her attempt to destroy it. Like Miaka, she ends up being asked to summon the wish-granting Genbu in order to save the snowbound country of Hokkan.

Watase’s revisit to the Fushigi Yuugi world feels like it wanted to address the criticisms of the original series. Takiko is certainly more of an action hero, jumping into battle more often than some of her celestial warriors and calling the romantic options aimed at her a love triangle is generous at best. However, it still hits many of the same notes and tropes: the central arc being finding and befriending the seven celestial warriors, lots of pretty boys, falling for the first warrior she meets, political and personal conflicts mixed, and of course, people are going to die. At only twelve volumes, the storyline feels a lot more streamlined and simplified than the original did, but manages to nail the sweet spot of “similar yet different” a sequel aims for.

Between the Sheets: Sakuragari

During 2008, Watase’s workload consisted of three manga: the middle of Genbu Kaiden, the beginning of Arata: The Legend, and a monthly release called Sakuragari (櫻狩り, The Hunt for Cherry Blossoms). Genbu Kaiden was actually put on hold to lessen this workload until Sakuragari was finished that year, as well as for health reasons. Released in the briefly-running Shogakukan magazine Rinka, the story focuses on Masataka Tagami, a poor student aiming to get into the University of Tokyo, and Souma Saiki, the heir of the rich family who hires him.

Sakuragari is Watase’s first BL (boys’ love) work, a genre which focuses around a (often pretty) cis male/male pairing, primarily written for a female audience. While some manga authors get their start in BL, writing doujinshi (for example, CLAMP), Watase went straight into publishing as a teenager and mentioned she initially had difficulties drawing the more explicit parts of the manga. It has never been released in English, likely due to its explicit content (a lot of which is nonconsensual), as well as depictions of suicide and abuse.

Reforming: Arata: The Legend

During Fushigi Yuugi’s serialization, Watase did an interview where she was asked what she’d like to be reborn as. Her response? A gakuran-wearing boy who would pick up girls and grow up to be a shonen mangaka. While we hope she isn’t reborn anytime soon, in 2008 she would become one of those things–a shonen mangaka–with the start of Arata Kangatari (アラタカンガタリ 〜革神語〜, Arata, Story of the Reforming God, released in English as Arata: The Legend). Arata: The Legend is a story of two young men, both named Arata: the first, a young warrior in the fantasy country of Amawakuni, accidentally stumbles into the modern world while fleeing from a false murder charge. The second and primary protagonist, a student named Arata Hinohara, ends up switching places with the Amawakuni Arata, entering the fantasy world while fleeing from school bullies. There, he gets drawn into the fight for control of the country through the mystical weapons, hayagami.

In plot and tone, Arata: The Legend doesn’t feel much different from her previous works. Watase has always leaned toward darker plots with shonen-esque action, and even the relationship between the real world and Amawakuni hearkens back to the metaphorical gauntlet that Hong-nan represented in Fushigi Yuugi. What’s so strikingly different about this one is her protagonist. Watase’s female protagonists generally have normal or sheltered upbringings (there’s a few comments about Miaka and Takako being spoiled rich girls in their respective series), and their series are often pitting their optimism and hope against cruel realities. Arata has no hope and has to relearn trust and optimism from others. Ironically, her first male protagonist feels like a truer picture of Watase herself than her female ones. Arata’s bullying is drawn off her own childhood experiences. The kanji used for his name (革, meaning “to reform” or “to improve”) represents her hopes for herself spiritually–when asked about it, her comment was “自分がまだその成長の渦中にあるのもあり…” (“I am still in the middle of growing…”). His last name, Hinohara (日ノ原), is also loaded with meaning. While the kanji are different, it has the same meaning, “origin of the sun,” as the kanji in the name of Japan itself (日本).

Like the fight for literal dominance and submission in the world of Amawakuni, there was also a fight going on behind the scenes. In early 2014, Watase wrote a candid post on her personal blog that described difficulties with her editor during an early arc of the story. The editor, who she refers to as “I-san,” wanted the story to go in their own direction, refusing to approve layouts and having Watase redraw whole pages frequently, to the point where it was affecting her already-compromised health. Thankfully for everyone, I-san was eventually replaced with a new editor. Of all the Watase stories and interviews I’ve read, this one stuck out at me not only because it features the (somewhat rare) professional victory of a woman, but that she willingly talked about it in a public post. Watase is easily one of the most approachable mangaka I’ve seen, willing to talk about herself and her works in multiple interviews, but in the era of #MeToo, having a woman’s voice speaking out against systemic power imbalances feels even more important than the woman’s voice she puts in her manga.

Voice of a Tiger: Byakko Senki and the present

In addition to her personal blog, Watase’s voice is also present on Twitter, where she tweets things from showing off pictures of her dog Popo-chan to talking about how she relates to Utsunuke (an autobiographical manga by Keiichi Tanaka about his depression). Meanwhile, Arata: The Legend continues to be serialized, having just passed its 24th volume. She also began the serialization of her final arc of the Fushigi Yuugi world, Byakko Senki (白虎仙記, Byakko, The Hermit’s Chronicle) last August. While I look forward to completing my collection of Arata: The Legend and checking out Byakko Senki when it’s released here (c’mon, you know Viz is going to make it happen), having reviewed her entire body of work, I think the words I might be looking forward to the most are a bit simpler. Words like “”ネームから逃げてるわけじゃない” (I am not running from my name) or “私も私らしく生きますよ” (I will live in my own way). Words that speak to a person every bit as challenged yet unbeaten as her heroines, that echo the truths of her works’ worlds.

Yuu Watase and her dog Popo-chan, as posted to her personal Twitter: https://twitter.com/wataseyuu_/status/978626949944717312

Tia Kalla

Tia Kalla

Longtime writer, temporary office minion, and nerd of all trades, tiakall is a fan of lengthy subordinate clauses and the Oxford comma. She enjoys plants, cats, puns of varying quality, and making cannibal jokes before it was cool.