Princess Smackdown: Dawn of the Arcana vs. Sakura Hime

Two princesses, each forced to marry against their will. Two haughty princes, skilled in many ways but denied the throne because of a twist of fate.

Rei Toma's Dawn of the Arcana and Arina Tanemura's Sakura Hime: The Legend of Princess Sakura, have essentially the same plot, but the two different creators shape it into two completely different books.

Dawn of the Arcana has a severe, simple feeling to it, with featureless backgrounds and uncluttered panels. That doesn't mean it's not sophisticated; Toma's intricate costume and character design add visual interest, and the compositions are reminiscent of works like Fumi Yoshinaga's Antique Bakery, with a single character dominating each panel.

The story is straight out of a Harlequin romance. Two kingdoms share a tiny island, and to keep the peace, red-haired Princess Nakaba of Senan must marry haughty Prince Caesar of Belquat. Nakaba is in shaky ground from the start, because on this island, all royalty has black hair, so as a red-haired princess, she is not only an anomaly but probably doomed to an early death.

Fortunately for her, and for the reader, she's also pretty badass, and she comes with a devoted servant, Loki, who is an ajin—part human, part animal. No sooner does Prince Caesar announce that Princess Nakaba is his property than the knives come out and the punches start getting thrown. As is so often the case in shoujo manga, the prince is a cold-hearted jerk—and at times he crosses over into being abusive—but by the end of the first volume you can't help but feel sorry for the guy, because he has definitely met his match in Nakaba and Loki. Also, Toma is throwing out some strong hints of romantic feelings between mistress and servant.

While there is plenty of action in this first volume, there isn't a lot of context. We get one flashback into Nakaba's past, and we see why Loki is so devoted to her, but there isn't much backstory beyond that. For Caesar's part, we learn that he is second in line to the throne, and we get a hint of another love interest, but no details. As a result, the characters seem curiously isolated, their backgrounds as blank as the panels behind them.

Arina Tanemura's Sakura Hime is just the opposite, crammed full of detail and context. No one could accuse Tanemura of embracing a less-is-more aesthetic; her panels are filled with screentones, flowers, side comments, extra characters, and all sorts of distractions. Sakura, a princess who is descended from the moon princess Kaguya (a real character in Japanese folklore), is betrothed to Prince Aoba, who has been her protector since birth, and when he shows up to claim his 14-year-old bride, the complications begin. Unlike the stony Nakaba, Sakura is all emotion—she gets flustered, she gets angry, and she confides in her servants, especially the tiny mononoke (spirit) Asagiri. She also has a priestess, Byakuya, who serves as her guide and protector.

Unlike the characters in Dawn of the Arcana, whose actions take place in a sort of manga bell jar, Sakura and Aoba have all kinds of backstory, and more characters and past incidents crowd in as the series progresses.

At the same time, Sakura Hime exists in more of a fantasy world. While Sakura herself is very human, and the reader may identify with her many endearing traits (tomboyishness, a love of snacks, a hatred of being told what to do), the action of the story is less realistic. Sakura tries to like her husband-to-be, but when he commits a shocking act of violence against her, it doesn’t seem as menacing as Prince Caesar crushing a lock of Nakaba's red hair. The emotional grounding simply isn't there; Sakura is more obviously a fairy tale.

In the end, it comes down to a matter of taste: Some readers will prefer the spare, elegant storytelling and sophisticated design of Dawn of the Arcana, while others will lean toward the rich fantasy world of Sakura Hime. Each is good—and bad—in its own way but either one is a great choice for an hour or two of escape reading.

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