In Yuu Watase's latest, Arata is a boy living the world of Amawakuni. Amawakuni is ruled by a princess, and it's time for the princess to be succeeded. But there's a problem: the new princess must come from the Hime clan, but that clan has no eligible females. The whole clan is in danger if they can't produce an heir, so Arata's grandmother makes him pose as a candidate princess to stall for time until a real one can be found. Arata isn't happy about the situation, but he's willing to do it to protect the people he loves. He disguises himself as a girl and travels to the capital accompanied by his attendent and friend, Kotoha. Arata is taken to the princess and a ceremony to name the new princess begins. But before the ceremony can be completed, the princess is betrayed and killed by Kannagi, one of her shinsho, guardians who are sworn to protect her. Kannagi then tries to kill Arata, the only witness, but he escapes. The shinsho blame Arata for the murder to the public and chase after him, but Arata escapes to a forest. The way out closes behind him, but he finds a strange portal...
Meanwhile, in present day Japan, Arata Hinohara is a typical high school student. He had trouble with bullying at his previous school, and he's hoping to make a fresh start in high school. He makes friends, but an old enemy returns and things take a turn for the worse. Arata is betrayed by his friends, and he's feeling disgusted with his life. Walking home after a particularly bad day, he hears a voice calling his name. Not caring where he ends up, he follows the voice down an alley and into a tunnel. When he emerges, he discovers that he's crossed from Japan into Amawakuni. He meets up with Kotoha, and she mistakes him for the other Arata. So does everyone else, and soon, Arata's running for his life from Kannagi. He takes up the Hime clan's hayagami, a god in the form of a sword, to defend himself, and it chooses him as its wielder. But can Arata save Amawakuni from the shinsho's rebellion?
The plot may take a while to summarize, but it's pretty simple and typical. Amawakuni is a pretty generic fantasy world. However, its government interested me. As Arata Hinohara astutely points out, it's like a fantasy version of Feudal Japan. The princess seals and controls Kamui, the gods who take the form of hayagami. She lends the power to the sho, weilders of the hayagami, and the stronger ones rule land themselves. The shinsho are the strongest sho, and it's their job to protect the princess. This is comparable to the system of daimyo and warlords of old Japan. The shinsho's usurpation reminded me of how the emperor lost power. It's fun to see the historical elements in the story, and it actually makes the real history a bit easier to understand. There's a good mix of drama, action, and humor, too. One problem is that it's never explained why everyone confuses the two Aratas when they look nothing alike. Did reality shift so they look the same to everyone else? Or what?
As for the characters, they're pretty generic. Arata is your typical shonen hero (though it's funny to see how he deals with life in modern Japan), his grandmother is a typical ornery elder, and Kotoha is a typical devoted female childhood friend. The story focuses more on Arata Hinohara, and he was a little better. It's not unusual for the protagonists of shonen manga to be negative and apathetic, but I liked that he empathizes with the princess's feelings of betrayal. This makes his decision to fulfill her wishes make sense. Also, you just know there's going to be more to Kannagi than there appears to be. Most of Watase's villains have reasons for what they're doing and pasts that make them sympathetic, and Kannagi already shows signs of this. It's not unusual, but what can I say, I have a weakness for that kind of character.
The art's really nice. Watase's simple but elegant style is instantly recognizable. The characters designs are similar to but still distinguishable from characters in her previous works. Both Aratas are good looking, especially the one from Amawakuni. And Kannagi might be even hotter than him. If it weren't for the action scenes and relative lack of romance, it'd be easy to forget this is a shonen manga. Everything is detailed, from people to costumes to backgrounds. I especially liked the costumes on the women of Amawakuni. The action scenes were well drawn, though pretty tyical. But they weren't drawn out or confusing like the ones in manga by certain other artists (I'm looking at you, CLAMP). They were important to the story and didn't seem gratuitous.
"Arata" has a pretty typical storyline with a pretty typical fantasy world and pretty typical characters. However, it does stand apart from similar manga. The story has interesting elements, the main character is pretty good, and the art is beautiful. I look forward to seeing where this series goes.