.The New Saito article published in Animerica Extra Vol. 5, No. 6, May 2002
This article was written by and is copyrighted to Patricia Duffield and may not be reproduced in part or whole without permission.

Chiho Saito just doesn't stop when it comes to her exploration of interesting settings and dramatic themes for her stories. In the year and a half since our first article about her, Saito's Revolutionary Girl Utena has become Animerica Extra's most popular series*. During this time, she has remained hard at work in Japan where she's published a three-volume collection of eleven distinctive and romantic short stories and begun a sophisticated new series. In appreciation of her many original covers for Animerica Extra, we've decided to showcase some of her recent works which demonstrate her mastery of drama and sensuality.

Saito's work has always had a mature flavor to it. This can be seen in her fondness for integrating historic settings and intimate relations into her stories, but lately there's been more to it than that. For the past several years, the majority of her leading characters have been in their twenties, instead of the teenaged characters found in many of her earlier works. What's more, the last series Saito published which used furigana (the syllabary characters seen above or next to kanji in manga for younger readers) was Revolutionary Girl Utena, first published in 1996. In her most recent work, Saito incorporates new topics ranging from antiques to gourmet food, topics which have greater appeal to older readers.

As a master of drama and romance herself, it's hardly surprising that Saito enjoys the work of the Takarazuka theater troops*. Takarazuka is famous for glittering musicals filled with action and romance. Saito likes Takarazuka so much, she's published a pair of manga covering five different performances.

There are a trio of stories in Tenshi no Bisho (long o), Akuma no Namida (Angel's Smile, Devil's Tears), each in a different exotic setting. Tourandotto* involves an exiled Astrakhan prince determined to return to reconquer his homeland and a cold Pekinese Princess who has avoided marriage by requiring her suitors answer riddles. How can two such willful people find love? The title story, Angel's Smile, Devil's Tears, is inspired by the legends of Faust and the Devil. An elderly Faust signs away his soul so he might regain his youth and woo a young woman he has fallen for. The ending surprises both Faust and the Devil. The third story, Valencia no Atsui Hana (The Hot Flowers of Valencia), offers plenty of action, drama and romance when three dashing young men don masks to secretly fight corruption in eastern Spain.

The title story of Saito's other Takarazuka manga, Gin no Ohkami (The Silver Wolf), is set in turn-of-the-century Paris. The Silver Wolf is the nickname of an assassin, and Miss Dulock is intent on avenging her father. But what happens when the assassin and the debutante fall for each other? Inspired by the 1956 film, Hoko (both o's long) no Requiem (Wandering Requiem) is also partially set in Paris, but this time the focus is on a favorite romantic historic character --Anastasia, the last Russian princess. These stories showcase not only the drama of Takarazuka, but also Saito's interest in period clothing and history.

Lady Masquerade is a two-volume series about tragedy, mystery and justice. At the age of nine, Setsuna's name, memory and happiness were all destroyed when her parents were killed in a car crash. In a reoccurring dream, her confused recollection has turned the events leading up to the death of her parents into a twisted masquerade. Following a black kitten into the woods, she spies a lascivious quartet wearing only masks and cat ears. When they notice her, they turn into panthers and kill her. Setsuna tries to lead a normal life, but aside from having to deal with her childhood trauma, the connection between sex and her parents' deaths keeps her from having normal relationships with men.

Setsuna's life changes at a friend's wedding. When Setsuna rejects another guest's unwelcome pass, he decides to be a bit more forceful. Setsuna's rescued by Kusunoki, the wedding photographer, and seeing him brings all her memories into line. He is the boy who pulled her from the water the day her family's car was sabotaged and plunged over a cliff. What's more, he still has the camera she dropped all those years ago, the camera which has photos of the people responsible for it all. With Kusunoki's help, she will become in control of the masquerade and avenge her parents' deaths.

Senichiya no Kagi (The Key to 1001 Nights) is a wonderful collection of romantic short stories in which keys play a significant part in the lives of the leading characters. The stories vary from exotic historic dramas to modern romantic comedies. The romance ranges from sweet to steamy; The Key to 1001 Nights is definitely not for kids. An amusing extra of the series is that Saito's fuzzy black and white cat, Chu-chu Taro (long o), cameos in many of the stories.

As a fan of fine dining and cooking shows, my favorite The Key to 1001 Nights story is Hagane no Bracelet (Bracelet of Steel) from the second volume. Midori works at her dad's sushi shop. Taro (long o) is the son of the French restauranteur across the street. They knew each other as kids, but Taro (long o) left to wander Europe and became a famous chef. He's so famous, he's going to be in a televised cooking contest. His fame and seeming disregard for his origins really cheese off Midori (pun intended). At a friend's wedding party, the two get handcuffed together as a party game. What begins as an annoyance becomes complicated when the two can't get out. Eventually, having to be at arm's length causes them to rekindle their understanding which eventually blossoms into romance. One of the scenes I particularly enjoyed is when Midori chews Taro (long o) out for lighting up --someone who really loves cooking wouldn't smoke. In a country where smoking is so prevalent, anti-smoking sentiments are rarely expressed in popular media, let alone in such a clever, plot-conscious way.

Inspired by a history of the last Russian czar Nicholas II, Saito's most recent series, Anastasia Kurabu (Anastasia Club), has the most unlikely cast. Kamui is a petite antiques genius whose late father was an antiques dealer. Sena claims to be the grandchild of Anastasia, the last Russian princess, and is perhaps an accomplished thief. Sumi claims to be the illegitimate grandchild of Nicholas II, Anastasia's father. Both have aspirations of proving their claims. With such a strong Russian theme, of course Chu-chu Taro (long o), who is a Russian breed of cat, appears in the series, and Kamui's professor Ohinata (long o) rounds out the cast. Analyzing and deciphering the history of heirlooms hasn't been this dramatic since the BBC hit Lovejoy. Of course, the cast of Anastasia Club is arguably better looking.

Saito's work still exudes the hallmarks of her style --interesting settings, beautiful characters and sensuality- yet she continues to try new themes. Her most recent work seems to have gravitated toward topics older readers would find appealing. Whether this change indicates a permanent departure from the forbidden loves and intensely dramatic scenarios of her earlier work only time will tell, but she has certainly proven she doesn't need social taboos and teen angst to write interesting, engaging stories.

 

*My understanding is that Utena ties with Fushigi Yugi, so saying this is OK. Let the FY fans sweat a little.

FOOTNOTE:
Unlike traditional Japanese theater, which is performed by all male casts, Takarazuka is an all female theater group.

I have no clue how Tourandotto should look in romanji. It's someone's name.