Folks – I hereby declare Atatsuki no Aria (暁のAria or Dawn’s Aria, and Chinese title is 晨光中的詠嘆調) the best pure shoujo manga series I’ve read in years. It’s harkens back to the classic shoujo storytelling of yore – where the narrative drives the plot and the characters breath with three-dimensional life – changing, evolving, and taking us along on an exhilirating and gutwrenching journey of their lives.
AnA is sweeping romance, with soaring triumphs and gutwrenching losses, a story about a girl whose strength, daring, unwavering dedication to music, and her soul-searing love for one man transports the reader into the gritty yet idealized world of days that may be long gone by, but the same dreams and hopes never change or die.
I thought about recommending this manga, but it’s not fully available to read online (English scans stop after volume 3), so instead I’m doing a full review, story and spoilers included. Warning that everything in this post, including pictures and scans, may spoil the story, which is currently published up to book 11. With that, I’m thrilled to share some good old-fashioned manga love with you all.
There is such a thing called karma, or kismet, or serendipity, or whatever is it that somehow makes you wonder – what are the odds of that happening at that moment? Right after I posted my mega-manga post on the best mangas I’ve read in the last quarter of a century (oops, just outed myself, but luckily I learned to read young), where I bemoaned the precipitous decline in quality storytelling in mangas in the most recent decade, I just got body slammed into the pavement by a little manga that I happened to buy at the bookstore this past week when I went with the intention of buying Paradise Kiss.
ParaKiss was not available, and I didn’t want to waste the trip, so I looked around and bought a set that looked pretty with a blurb that seemed interesting. Each book was shrinked wrapped so I couldn’t exactly flip through it, but I buy plenty of mangas on impulse, so it went right into my bag. I then proceeded to stay up until 5 a.m. that night reading it. Writer Akaishi Michiyo‘s lastest manga (in her 30 years of writing) has effortlessly blended the epic heroine’s journey of Candy Candy with the forbidden and heartrending forbidden romance and birthright search of Lady Georgie, and set it in the same decade and struggles of young Japanese girls in Yokohama Monogatari. The result is a manga I simply can’t stop reading.
At this point, while I might not be ready to add AnA to the list of the greats, it’s sheer existence is so momentous and surprising I’m still pinching myself that this is a new series. I’ve read almost all of Akaishi’s mangas, and while I’ve liked every one of them, I’ve never fully loved any of them (until now). She’s a very fluid and plot-driven storyteller, who never wastes frames on excessive emotional angst and existential woe. Akaishi’s stories are almost perfectly balanced between plot- and character-driven, which is quite a feat.
Of her earlier works, Alpen Rose was her first manga series I read and a real classic shoujo love story set in WWII Europe. Subsequently her reincarnation-supernatural series Ten yori mo Hoshi yori mo (Chinese title 孤星望月) is a wonderfully creative and thrilling story of three people who lived during the shogunate of Oda Nobunaga and their tragic tale of love and loss which leads them to be reincarnated with supernatural powers of fire, water, and air, depending on they died in their past lives, and in their reincarnated state they find themselves trying to not let their fate repeat itself. I consider Akaishi a competent writer who has yet to gut punch me with emotional angst and want, that is until I read AnA.
AnA is the story of Kaibara Aria, the illegitmate daughter of a former geisha mother and a father who is the head of powerful and wealthy Nishimikado family. The story is set during the Taisho period (1920s Japan), and follows Aria on her path to becoming a concert pianist, and when fate intervenes, a prima donna. While Aria may seem like a Mary Sue on the surface (being a drop-dead gorgeous heroine with musical talent galore), she can be prickly and hurtful, impatient and impetuous.
She chafes at her illegitmate status, wanting never to be like her mother, sitting by the window waiting longingly for her father to visit her once a month. She plans to go abroad and pursue her dreams, her daring spirit at odds with the age she lives in. Aria’s father tries to bring her into the legitimate side of the family, but her existence throws his wife and kids into a quandry. Most notably, eldest son Natsuo finds himself charmed and affected by his beautiful and charming half-sister. Oh yes, AnA has fauxcest, and it’s OMG-good. And yes, it’s faux, so don’t worry about the squicky.
AnA brings to life the grandeur of the love stories of a more romantic era, which span years and continents, forced separation, near death, intervening third parties, anmesia, and a love that burns bright and unwavering. AnA takes its time to develop relationships and characters, and all the major characters go through great change as the story propels them on the path of their destiny. I love that all the major characters are fully-fleshed out. With that said, let’s see if this story as recounted by me sounds as interesting to you as I think it is.
The story opens the early 1920s, in a time of great change in Japan, where traditional Japanese culture was being transformed and touch by Western influences. Our heroine, little Kaibara Aria, runs through a beautiful country estate paying no heed to her worried mother calling after her. She sees a sun room filled with drawings of angels on the walls and ceiling. She goes inside and climbs a ladder to see it closer, and breaks into a song.
Unbeknownst to her, a young boy had been hiding in the sun room escaping his tutors, and he peeks out from under the blanket to see what he thinks is an angel descended from the heavens, she is that beautiful and her voice that breathtaking. Aria is no angel, and she tumbles from the ladder and falls on top of the boy, our hero Nishimikado Natsuo. He says that she can’t possibly be an angel since she weighs a ton (LOL), but she gets called outside by her mom.
Aria receives a slap for running out of her mom’s view, and Natsuo watches in wonder that this slip of a girl doesn’t even cry or flinch when she accepts her punishment. He asks who she is, and is told that she is not a person he should be having any contact with. Aria goes home and sees her dad, who she knows has another family and only comes to visit her and her mother periodically. But he adores her, and she him. An 18 year old Aria walks up from a dream, wondering why she’s dreaming about her childhood all of a sudden.
Aria heads to take the entrance exams for the Tokyo Music Academy, where she is a gifted pianist and applying for the instrumental department. At the academy, she meets other applicants as well as students, and it is there that Natsuo and Aria meet again. Aria’s a talented pianist, and she is accepted and she catches the interest of a teacher at the Academy, Shiroyuki-sensei. After her acceptance, her father decides to publicly introduce her to the world as his daughter. She dresses up to attend the ball, whereby she discovers that another pianist applicant Yuriko is her half-sister, and the young man she met is her half-brother, Natsuo. Both wonder what this means, and feel twinge of discomfort and regret at the realization of their relationship.
Aria embarks on her piano training as a student at the Academy, with Shiroyuki-sensai taking extra interest in her. While all the other students have a crush on him, and Aria slowly develops one as well, the teacher genuinely sees Aria as a talent that he wants to protect so it can develop properly. Sadly, Shiroyuki-sensei is actually already married, with a wife who is dying of tuberculosis in the countryside.
Aria realizes that her crush isn’t going anywhere, but she treasures Shiroyuki-sensai’s kindness and care for her. Her dad sends her on a matchmaking date with a young Japanese businessman from a comparable family, Daidoji, who lives and works in Europe. He’s initially dismissive of Aria’s claim that she wants to study abroad and become a concert pianist in Europe, but her playing quickly makes him concede her talent. He teases that he ought to marry her and take her to Europe, but she laughs and tells him that they both agreed they didn’t want to marry each other. Daidoji tells her that he knows they will meet again someday in the streets of some European city.
Aria quickly discovers that her left hand freezes up during playing more and more, and Natsuo is the first to take her to the hospital and finds out that Aria suffered a hand injury as a child which severed her nerves, and will likely cause paralysis if she keeps playing. Both Shiroyuki-sensei and Aria also find out shortly thereafter, but then his wife dies and he also comes down with TB. Sensei leaves for the countryside, and reminds Aria that she is too talented to give up.
Aria is told that the family expects Natsuo to marry Beniko, the daughter of another prominent family. Except she is obsessive, rude, and controlling, wanting Natsuo to belong to her and tries to get ride of Aria because she can tell that Natsuo is way too nice to his half-sister. Thankfully the family realizes she’s pretty crazy and allows Natsuo to call off the engagement.
Aria prepares for a piano competition, knowing this might be her last chance. She has been angry at her mother for quite some time, deriding her mother as foolish for waiting for the man she loves to come see her whenever he wants, never trying to change her lot in life. On the day of the competition, right before noon, the Great Kanto Earthquake occurs, a great tremblor that topples houses, and worse of all causes a firestorm that will nearly burn a quarter of Tokyo to the ground.
The Academy is fine, but Aria runs back to her mother’s house and realizes the entire neigborhood has been flattened. Her mother is pinned beneath the house, because she had gotten out but ran back inside to grab a beautiful kimono that she had prepared for Aria. Aria extricates her mother and carries her on her back to try to find a hospital. They can barely find an open route when Natsuo arrives, having come all the way to find Aria.
They take her mother to the hospital, where the staff cannot treat her and all the other patients pouring in. Aria’s mother asks her to sing, and Aria’s beautiful voice buoys the spirits everyone suffering at the hospital. Natsuo arrives with supplies, but it’s already too late, and Aria’s mother has passed. Natsuo manages to get Aria and her nanny back to the Academy, and the hospital later burns in the great fire, and along with it her mother’s remains.
Nanny finally reveals to Aria that the kimono her mother went back to retrieve that was intended for Aria, was a gift from her real father to her mother. And her real father was not Natsuo’s father, but an European gentlemen who had come to Japan as part of a touring musical troupe. He left and promised to return, but never did. Aria realizes that this means she is not Natsuo’s sister. Shiroyuki-sensei comes back to find Aria and make sure she’s okay, and then he dies after giving her a song he composed for her. He also asks Natsuo to protect Aria.
The city cleans up and rebuilds after the earthquake, and Aria gives one final piano performance before she reveals that she cannot play anymore. She considers transferring to the vocal arts department, where her good friend and senpai Shoko is the premier student of the singing program. Shoko realizes during a group choral performance that Aria is extremely talented and gifted, and may just become her biggest rival.
Natsuo has taken over the running of the company, and his father falls ill thereafter. Before he dies, he reveals the truth to Natsuo that Aria is not his sister, as well as clues to her father’s real identity. He makes Natsuo promise to always take care of Aria and he will treat her like a real sister for life (LOL, fat chance of that happening, pops). He passes away shortly thereafter, and his wife tells Aria that the family will continue to pay for her education, but she is never to step foot in the house again.
Natsuo’s cousin Tsukio, who is a gifted artist, decides to leave Tokyo and head to Paris, where his dream is to be artist in Montmartre. He’s always adored Aria, but he has never made his feelings known to her, understanding that friendship is what she needs from him. Aria has raced to the railroad station to see him off, and he gives her the one painting of his which wasn’t burned during the earthquake. She has nothing to give him, and he takes her ribbon as a gift. The sketch is, of course, of her.
Aria transfers to the vocal arts department, and first she needs to find a student from the instruments department to be her partner. Everyone refuses, so she finds a reclusive and rather odd-ball student Kitayama, and manages to persuade him to accompany her. Turns out Kitayama is a true piano playing genius that has never agreed to accompany a vocal student, but he gradually becomes Aria’s best friend and true confidante.
He is the first to realize that Aria and Natsuo like each other, but neither have the courage to confess. When Aria falls ill from exhaustion, Kitayama purposely tells Natsuo that it’s a life threatening illness. Natsuo confesses to Aria, and they finally realize the mutual love they have for each other. Overhearing this is Shoko-senpai, who unsurprisingly has fallen for Natsuo and had hoped for an possible future between them.
Shoko bravely accepts that Natsuo loves Aria, and that Aria is primed to become a better singer than she is. She decides to go abroad to further her singing, and at the port when Aria comes to see her off, Shoko wishes her the best and gives her the scarf and gloves she is wearing. She tells Aria to take care of herself, and that she expects to see her in Europe soon, when Aria can return the items to her.
Aria and Natsuo plan to go to Europe together to look for her real father, despite Natsuo’s mother’s angry disapproval of his relationship with Aria. They receive a letter from Tsukio that indicates he’s not doing well in Paris, and they decide to head to Paris first to find him. Natsuo and Aria head to the country estate where they first met, so that they can take pictures of the angels painted on the wall of the sunroom by Tsukio, in order to raise his spirits.
At the country estate, Natsuo and Aria pledge their troth and have a wedding ceremony by themselves. They consummate their marriage, and make the final preparations to leave. Kitayama has also applied for and received a scholarship to Paris, and will be going with them. Aria and Kitayama are aboard the ship waiting for Natsuo, and he arrives right as the ship is about to sail. He turns as someone calls his name, and crazy (literally batshit insane) Beniko stabs him with a knife, smiling in her lunatic way that he will never leave her side.
Aria doesn’t know what has happened to Natuso but she wants to get off the ship. Kitayama stops her, telling her that Natsuo asked him privately to make sure Aria leaves on that ship, even if something were to happen that prevented him from accompanying her. Natsuo also prevents Aria’s friend from summoning her off the ship, saying that she must leave today. Aria sings through her tears as the ship sails, and Natsuo is bleeding on the ground as he remarks that he can hear her singing.
Europe – Paris, Rome, Tuscany
Aria arrives in Paris with a heavy heart, not knowing what happened to Natsuo, but vowing to soldier on and do what she came to do. She scours Paris until she finds Tsukio, who is now a listless drunk picking fights in seedy bars and has ruined his liver on a steady diet of absinthe. Turns out Tsukio found a beautiful waitress who looks just like Aria, and has been using her as a model and girlfriend during his time in Paris. But the girl realizes that his heart is somewhere else, and Tsukio’s heartbreak and frustration has driven him to drink and waste away.
By the time Aria finds him, he’s in the last stages of liver failure. Kitayama enrolls in his Paris music program, while Aria sings to make money to take care of Tsukio. Aria does in fact run into her failed matchmaking date Daidoji on the streets of Paris, and he organizes a salon for her to sing and raise the funds necessary to take Tsukio to Rome, where he has a final wish to see St. Peter’s Basilica.
Daidoji offers to accompany them to Italy, and puts them up at his friend’s country estate. They arrive in Rome, and during a visit to St. Peter’s, they encounter a lovely gentlemen who invites them to dine with him that night. At dinner, Aria gets up and offers to sing, and she picks a lively Puccini operetta. The gentlemen is quite taken with her performance and offers kind praise, and only after he leaves does the group realize that he was in fact Puccini himself.
Tsukio spends his final days sketching in the countryside, and he finally passes away, leaving Aria devastated by his untimely passing. Back in Japan, Natsuo did not die from the stabbing, but he’s been too weak to travel. He has concealed the situation from Aria, not wanting her to worry. After Tsukio’s death, Aria receives a letter from Beniko, who confesses in her crazed state that she killed Natsuo. Aria’s striken with grief, and Daidoji takes care of her, in turn realizing that he loves her. He makes a decision to conceal her whereabouts from the world, convincing himself that it’s because he wants to protect her from further heartache.
Natsuo arrives in Paris, looking for Aria and Tsukio’s final resting place. He finds out from Kitayama that Daidoji accompanied Aria to Italy, and now they have both fallen off the radar. What follows is a series of near misses as Natsuo and Aria travel between Paris and Rome, he looking for her, she gradually pursuing a singing career. Daidoji realizes that Natsuo has arrived in Europe looking for Aria, and he arranges for Natsuo to call off the search and return to Japan.
Natsuo reluctantly agrees to leave after his retainer guilt trips him into returning to run the company. But as the ship makes a brief stop in Turkey, Natsu discovers that Daidoji planned his return to Japan, and he disembarks the ship in Istanbul with a vow that he’s going back for his Aria. Kitayama and Daidoji receive word that Natsuo has disappeared in Istanbul with a vow to return to Paris. Which is when Kitayama receives a telegraph that there has been a car accident in Turkey and Nishimikado Natsuo is dead.
Kitayama and Daidoji decide to conceal this from Aria for the time being, since she is working at the Paris opera house as a cleaning lady while her real father is preparing a new opera production. Aria’s half-sister knows her identity but has warned her not to reveal herself to their father. Natsuo’s retainer goes to identify the body, and the deceased had all of Natsuo’s belongings and has the same face as Natsuo. The family confirms his death.
Aria tells Daidoji that she cannot accept his continued care for her anymore, and she leaves and sets off on her own. Both Kitayama and Shoko-senpai weep for Aria, knowing that Natsuo is dead but cannot tell her. Aria accidentally hears about Natsuo’s death from other Japanese living in Paris, and Kitayama confirms it as being true. She has a breakdown, but when she awakens, she tells Kitayama that she refuses to accept his death.
The main lead at the new opera performance ends up falling ill, and Aria steps in as the lead. She blows the house down with her performance, where she sings out all her desperation and devastation at the likelihood that Natsuo has died. The performance is a success, and because she wore her mother’s kimono on stage, her real father recognizes it and reunites with her. Aria becomes a world-renowned opera singer.
The story then moves forward a few years, with Aria taking Europe by storm with her opera career, and then the scene moves to a house in Shanghai where a man is coming home. He lights a cigarette and speaks to a woman waiting for him, and we see that he is wearing an eye patch, but he is without a doubt Natsuo. And with that, the story takes us back to Japan and onwards to triad-run 1927 Shanghai.
What? Do you want more? All of what I just wrote happens up til the end of book 10, but I have read book 11, and have even seen the most recent chapter in April’s edition of Flower Monthly. But I think this is a great place to stop, because, really, this story needs to be read to understand why it’s so wonderfully engaging a read.
Akaishi’s artwork is gorgeous – she is a master at drawing architecture and costume design. Aria wears one exquisite kimono after another, and Natsuo’s penchant for three-piece suits and other formalwear is like eucalytus for this Koala’s eyes. I love how her style has remained consistent in her thirty years in the industy, with all the rough edges polished but none of her 3-dimensional renderings lost amidst the recent penchant for a more angular and lean drawing style.
AnA is like the best type of throw-back manga – one which pays homage to the epic storytelling of yore but feeling modern and fresh with its fleshed out side characters and lack of truly evil villains. It’s almost like fate (via the hands of selfish characters in the story) is both the hero and the villain, bringing Aria and Natsuo together and tearing them apart. But the story never ever gets bogged down in the maudlin emotions or the treacly romance, instead moving all the characters forward in their lives even as they suffer emotional, professional, and spiritual setbacks. It’s not by coincidence that Aria attains her greatest achievement while she is alone, weighed down by the possibility that Natsuo has died.
Akaishi, when interviewed about reaching her thirtieth year as a mangaka, gave an answer to one question that made me instantly develop an all emcompassing respect for her. She was asked about her stories always having romance take a backseat to what is happening in the lives of her characters. Be it an actor, figure skater, people dealing with supernatural situations or spritual challenges, a deadly conspiracy, conquerors and savants – her stories put achievement first and romance second. Her heroines may find love, even the epic kind like in AnA, but the romance is simply part of the greater story about the destiny of her leading lady.
AnA has been an exhilirating read that had me to running to 5 bookstores in 3 days to find all the volumes that have been published thus far. It’s been worth it. If you like epic shoujo storytelling, then I’ve found the latest crack to fill that craving. How the hell did Natsuo supposedly die in Turkey (with a dead body that looks like him, natch) only to show up in Shanghai a few years later all bad boy like? You’ll have to read it yourself to find out. AnA continues with the twist and turns of fate, summed up by the most perfect line of dialogue in this manga – “He wants you to keep going, and to never look back. Fate will bring you back to each other.”