Title: Sakura Gari
Author: Yuu Watase
Media Type: Manga (Japanese comic)
Warning: Potential spoiler. Proceed at own risk.
I would like to start this review with a warning. This manga contains mature contents including violence, homosexuality, sex, rape, torture, murder and suicide. Readers discretion is highly advised. Mature readers also have to proceed with caution as some will find the vulgarity presented in this stunning piece of art beyond tolerable.
Yuu Watase’s drawing is really an art, although I personally did not admire them so much before as I deemed her style to be more of the Shojo(girl) type in which I do not enjoy. I have to admit that I did not recognize her drawing in Sakura Gari at all since it seems more likely to come from a Shonen(boy)-style artist. I only recognized them when I searched for her other works and found certain similarities in the design. Knowing that she is the author of the well-known Shojo series like Fushigi Yugi or Ayashi no Ceres amazed me even more, because the two series differ drastically from Sakura Gari although all three of them aim at female readers as target audience. Sakura Gari brings Yuu Watase into a new territory, namely the Yaoi/Shonen-ai manga. This group of comics addresses the relationship between male characters; or to put it frankly, they are about homosexual relationship although one can argue that they are only created to satisfy female readers rather than addressing the realistic aspects of homosexual relationship. The reasons behind the popularity of this genres will not be addressed here since I do not have the expertise to understand the psychology of Yaoi manga, but take my word that they are really popular. With such wide range of stories produced in this genres, it is even more amazing that Sakura Gari, easily Yuu’s first work in this territory, is recognized among readers as being one of the best.
Her artwork may have been one factor for it to be labeled a masterpiece, but it is the story that truly set it apart. As I have mentioned earlier that Yaoi stories are for female audiences, thus harboring characteristics of its Shojo counterpart. The stories are mostly focused on love and also on the sexual aspect of the relationship. The character designs are often beautiful and even feminine. In other word, Yaoi manga are sometimes merely Shojo manga in disguise. There are some that are different, containing more content with noticeably more masculine design. Sakura Gari falls into the latter group without doubt with more realistic and detailed illustration. The setting is Japan in post World War I when long-cherished culture and traditions was blending with the Western influences after the Meiji Restoration. This is seen clearly in the Saiki household as the lord of the house, Souma, travels around Tokyo in a western-made car, dresses in finely tailored three-piece suit and socialized in a western-style party. On the other hand, Masataka Tagami, a school boy from rural town, still dresses in traditional Japanese clothing, runs around town in wooden shoes, and studies hard to enter school. The depression following the First World War brings Masataka to the Saiki household in search of financial support by working as a servant while he is attending preparation school in Tokyo. Although this setting might be unfamiliar to audiences outside of Japan who may not have any background in its history, Yuu has taken care to illustrate the period thoroughly so every character’s motivations and decisions make sense.
I find myself drawing analogy between Sakura Gari and Beauty and the Beast so many times while reading, albeit them not entirely that analogous. Beauty comes to the castle knowing she will find a Beast and learns to love the monstrous creature she lives with. Masataka, on the other hand, walks into Saiki house unaware of the person the lord might be and meets Souma who at first sight is a prince charming rather than a beast. His mother is a beautiful British woman with sad eyes in which her son inherited. Thus he has both Western and Japanese features which makes him stand out everywhere he goes. Souma is described by one of his admirer as an art in which an artist cannot capture. He is also a gentle and generous master whom everyone seems to love and worship.
But the alarm rings loud ever since the first meeting when Souma, half-joking, asks Masataka to kill him.
Masataka does not understand the message, so are the readers. He begins to serve his master with much enthusiasm that bring him admiration from the elder servants and love from Souma, albeit it being different kind of love than Masataka would have expected. Souma, knowing that the boy was clueless of his affection, is satisfied with being admired as an elder brother and leaves Masataka in a fantasy that he had found someone whom he can feel connected to as a family. But not all is well in the house of Saiki, and a fire on a forsaken warehouse on the estate sets the blossoming relationship into flame. Masataka finds the beast within the prince, and Souma is left with no other choice but to bound Masataka to the house with every mean possible so his beauty would never be able to leave him. Love, admiration and adoration were shattered and gone. The beast lives in grief of not being loved, and beauty lives in despair and is not able to love.
But there is nothing that happen without a cause, even the beast and the anguish that both him and Masataka hold. As the story of the Saiki family comes to light, Masataka starts to realize the reason behind Souma’s request to be killed, and the real reason for the bitterness that leads his life thus far. And before Souma succumbs to agony, Masataka is back to serve beside his master, although this is not the old apparently cheerful and enthusiastic Masataka we were introduced to. He is now truly the beauty who has come to learn, love and forgive.
It is forgiveness that save all, not love. Masataka did love and admire Souma, but he could not understand or forgive him at first. By forgiving himself and getting rid of his own bitterness, he learns to forgive others and understands their pain. Souma may have many flaws and commit many sins, but he is not alone in those crimes. The beast is also a creation of others’ sins be it simply ignorance or down-right insanity. And by being forgiven, Souma also learns to forgive others. He is freed from the misery and thus transforms, this time, into a true prince charming.
But forgiveness cannot atone sin; they are two different things. There are consequences Souma must face, and so does Masataka. This leads to such exceptionally beautiful and original ending. To fully cherish the moment, you must read the whole story and goes through their pain and development, provided that you can manage to go to the very end. As I have warned earlier that the vulgarity in this manga is not something everyone can handle. I noticed a lot of comments complaining on how they love this series, but the atrociousness holds them back from actually finishing. There are arguments on whether that extremity is absolutely necessary to convey the message and leads to this unique ending. One thing is for sure that it brings the readers onto an emotional roller-coaster that no one is able to forget. This is another factor apart from originality, exceptional storytelling and artwork that make Sakura Gari so memorable. I may never become a fan of Yuu Watase as I cannot picture myself reading Shojo manga anytime soon, but I will definitely remember Sakura Gari as one of her masterpiece, and one of the best Yaoi manga ever written.