Ever since finishing the Yatagarasu series at the tail end of last year, I’ve been feeling a bit at sea. I fell too hard and fast for Abe’s impossibly brilliant tale of imperial crow people, murderous monkeys, and fallen gods, and a life without it seemed empty somehow. Yes, I can always go back and reread it (and I will!), but there’s something magical about discovering a great book for the first time, and you can only ever do that once. So moping slightly, I returned to Tokyo and its bookstores, with the hope of finding a new book to love to ease the pain a little at least. But when I scanned the titles on the shelves of the fantasy schedule, my heart leaped up into my throat. What I saw there was impossible—a new Yatagarasu book?! How can this be?, I said to myself. The series is complete in six books. And yet a seventh book stubbornly continued to exist on the shelf before my eyes, Karasu Hyakka: Hotaru no Sho. I took it in my hands and saw that the impossible was indeed real, new pieces of the world I have come to love, a collection of side stories.
Normally, I am not one for side stories. It’s sort of like a band from my youth getting back together. The thing was finished. Forcing it back to life never ends well. But I missed my crow friends, and the side stories were written concurrent with the series, so it felt more like Abe taking little day trips away from the series rather than trying to beat a dead horse. And they were great! I got some closure with Masuho no Susuki that I didn’t even know I needed, learned the truth about some parentages, and generally felt reinvigorated by these injections of Yamauchi straight into my bloodstream.
But alas! That book also ended, and I was right back where I started. (Well, until the next book of side stories comes out?? My hopes are high!!) And just when I started to slump back into reality, some beautiful books fell into my hot little hands. Three, to be precise, the current number of volumes in the manga version of the first book of the Yatagarasu series! It’s not quite the same as new pieces of that world, but they definitely present a new vision of it, and I’ll take what I can get. Plus, the books are truly gorgeous. I was lucky enough to get the deluxe edition of the first two, the deluxe part being an extra book. Two books in one! The bonus books are mostly taken up with side stories by Abe, which means, yes, new pieces of the Yatagarasu world. There are also character sketches and explanations of the process by which the manga came about, and all of it is fascinating and worthwhile. If you’re a fan of the novels, you should definitely get the deluxe editions of the manga if you can find them.
But what about the manga itself? Abe selected artist Matsuzaki personally to work together with her on turning the novel into a manga, and it was a good choice. Matsuzaki manages to re-create the gorgeous luxury of imperial court and all its princesses in brilliant shojo style that shifts and twists into something darker as the story does. The character designs really capture the essence of the princesses as they vie for the love of a prince who never shows himself. Naive Asebi is starry eyed and rosy cheeked, dazzled and shocked at every turn like the heroine of an old school shojo manga. Shiratama is icily beautiful, heavy lidded eyes adorned with an impossible number of eyelashes, while Masuho no Susuki is larger than life, beautiful in a warm round way, confident and generous on her own terms. Hamayu is properly masculine, her features sharp and her manner full of swagger. I don’t know if this is how I imagined them when I was reading the book, but they feel perfect for the story and this adaptation.
And for the most part, it’s a pretty straightforward adaptation, following the doings of the novel with basically no deviation. Parts are compressed or glossed over, as they would have to be in order to fit the whole thing in a reasonable number of manga volumes, and some parts from later in the series are added in, like the scene of Yukiya turning back from a crow at the very beginning, most likely to establish early on that this is no ordinary court drama, something that readers of the novel don’t learn until much later in the first book together with our innocent heroine Asebi.
When I first dug into the manga, I couldn’t help but play the novel back against it in my head, waiting for the story beats that I knew were coming. But before long, Matsuzaki’s confident retelling had drawn me in on its own merits, as a separate work. Her Yamauchi feels fresh and full of impressive detail, offering new insight into a world I thought I knew. I had never really thought before about how the carriages would be pulled by the horse-crows, and I was impressed to see how she handled this on the page. Not to mention the many, many layers of kimonos that every single woman in these pages is wearing. I hope she has an assistant because the kimonos alone seem like an impossible amount of work. But it’s not just the kimono that are depicted in lavish luxury; all the palaces, the mountains that make up this strange country, the flowers, many varied ladies of various ages who serve the princesses—Matsuzaki neglects nothing in her recreation of the world of text into a world of image. Even if you haven’t read the novels, Matsuzaki has created something that stands alone, combining all the finest elements of true shojo drama with a fantastical murder mystery. It’s worth your time. (Insert obligatory plea to publishers to hire me to translate it.)