Shoujo – Drama, mystery, psychological
12 Volumes (complete)
Tsubasa is excited to see her twin sister, Arisa, after many years apart. While Tsubasa is violent and a tomboy, Arisa is gentle, smart, and even the leader of her class. When Tsubasa gets to swap with Arisa for a day, it’s a chance to be the model, well-loved student she’s always dreamed of being. But when Tsubasa gets home with a letter for her sister, Arisa jumps out of a window, and a confused Tsubasa is desperate for answers.
I loved ARISA in the beginning. But it’s one of those series that I like less the longer it goes on.
And it’s not just because I’m well above the target demographic either. Even when ARISA was originally being published, little things started annoying me, and they kept adding up so that by the time the final volume rolled around, I felt Tsubasa was pretty much too good for this manga.
Although I do admit to being a bit bitter that my preferred ship was sunk. But that’s also at least partly the manga’s fault, which I’ll explain later.
Tsubasa and Arisa get stuck with crappy manga parents who divorce and decide to split the twins up. We learn that they weren’t totally cut off like many other manga families, but still, not seeing your sibling for years? That’s terrible. So Tsubasa is thrilled when Arisa suggests they secretly meet up, even though she knows she’s hardly a sister to brag about. Tsubasa’s quick temper has earned her the nickname Demon Princess, and she can’t even make any girl friends (though she’s got several guy friends). In truth, Tsubasa just can’t stand injustice, a trait of hers that dominates the series.
Anyway, the twins hang out, and Arisa suggests Tsubasa visit her school by impersonating her (Arisa). The wig Tsubasa gets to cover up her own blonde hair comes in handy well after her one-day visit. After Arisa attempts suicide, Tsubasa opens a note that was in Arisa’s locker: “Arisa Sonada is a traitor.” This combined with Arisa’s cryptic clues before jumping out the window spurs Tsubasa to go back to Arisa’s school, pretending to be her class president sister with amnesia while the real Arisa is in a coma. There, Tsubasa works to unravel why Arisa was sent such a letter when the whole class seems to adore Arisa.
But things get weird quickly during Friday’s study hall. Then, it’s “King Time”, when all students of the class enter their wish onto a website in order to have one granted. Tsubasa, impersonating Arisa, (or Tsubasa-Arisa for short) is confused, but the students all say that the King is powerful, that he can grant any wish. Tsubasa-Arisa doesn’t believe such a thing, and she vows to prevent anybody from getting hurt from these wishes as well as unmask the King.
Now, ARISA is a mystery, a rather uncommon genre for preteen girls. As such, of course it isn’t going to be a dark thriller or as full of twists and turns as something running in a seinen magazine. That being said, one of the faults of this series starts at the beginning: most of the students in the class aren’t introduced. Instead, for several volumes, it’s:
*puts on game show announcer voice*
“But wait, Tsubasa-Arisa! You haven’t met everyone just yet! Now, let us introduce the next student of 2-B who hasn’t been attending class! And please, show us hints as to why this person seems to be the King!”
Now, ARISA probably was more effective back when it was being serialized in a magazine, as readers wouldn’t know how long it would be running for. But now? “Gee, I’m on the second volume of a twelve volume series. Well, DUH, this person can’t be the King.” Had Ando introduced more of the class outside of the main characters or dive more into all the members of the class, she could have spread the suspicion around more. The manga later comes up with an excuse as to why the King can only be one out of a small number of individuals, but older readers will likely have the King pegged by then anyway, long before Tsubasa figures it out.
Still, I like the setup: a girl infiltrates her twin sister’s school to determine Arisa’s connection to the King and the source of the traitor card. Fortunately, she’s not completely alone in her mission. One of her friends from her school, Takeru, assists (but moreso in the opening volumes), and she does gain an ally in Class 2-B. They all keep investigating as the King seems to take delight in their struggles.
When the dust finally settles, I think a lot of people are going to be unhappy. I won’t go into details, but there’s some selfishness and a surprising amount of happily-ever-afters for a series that has been rather horror-filled until then. There is a surprising twist as the manga wraps up — well after the King is revealed, so audiences will still have a reason to finish even after the King is confirmed. However, in the final volume, the bonus story doesn’t fit what we know about the characters and their world, and the 4-koma comics sink a romance.
And that’s part of the problem. Ando teases some possible relationships in the story (and another in the bonus), but it seems like she backed down just to be different. That was disappointing to me, but the real issue is that Tsubasa invests all this time and effort into something and gets the short end of the stick in many regards. Looking back, I guess there were some hints as to how things would end up, but I may be trying to read too much into parts since I know the conclusion. A larger part of me thinks that maybe Ando had one idea for the outline of the story, and about halfway through decided to go in another direction. It’s a bit ironic that later in her career Ando would start serializing in josei magazines, and I can’t help but wonder how things would have been different if ARISA had been written for older audiences instead of a younger one. And if the manga had been written later in her career, maybe some of the final couples and developments would have been more fleshed out.
The characters, particularly the boys, do bare a resemblance to some of Ando’s other character designs, but they aren’t identical. Which is good, of course. The story setup is rather serious, but there is a large amount of visual humor, mostly Tsubasa’s yankee side coming out. There are a few disturbing scenes for young readers, which is to be expected considering there’s an attempted suicide in the opening chapter. But ARISA is tamer than other survival/mystery with similar threats of violence. It helps that Ando’s art is rather large and features the typical shoujo brightness. It’s a bit too large maybe, as many of the later volumes are on the thin side. The only real issue is that characters from the side (profile) tend to all have the same face. Oh, and I don’t understand how Tsubasa packs up all her hair under the wig so quickly or why she doesn’t just remove the dye if she’s going to impersonate Arisa, but whatever. There is a character in a wheelchair, so even though this isn’t a case of somebody with an incurable disease or anything, I do appreciate seeing someone with a disability as a major character. Otherwise, ARISA‘s art makes this an accessible read for almost anyone.
Honorifics are used. The leader of the class game is called “the King” and “he”, but the translation notes at the end of each volume that it may not be a “he” after all. Other cultural aspects are also noted. Tsubasa’s yankee speech is shown as rough, but because of the way English is, it’s not as noticeably different from Arisa’s. The adaptation keeps Tsubasa’s occasional use of “Arisa” as if she’s speaking in third-person, which the translation notes do point out that it’s fairly common in Japanese for people to use their names instead of a form of “I”. Otherwise, even though this isn’t a cutesy romance, this was a manga for the Nakayoshi crowd, so the dialogue isn’t very high level.
ARISA is a decent read for those wanting to get into mysteries, but it’s not dark enough for some readers and not romantic enough for others. Combined with the repetitive start, the manga ends up in a weird void with only a limited audience.
Kodansha Comics has published Ando’s Kitchen Princess and Let’s Dance a Waltz and will release Something’s Wrong With Us. Del Rey released Wild @ Heart while TOKYOPOP published Zodiac P.I.