Ichiko Ima is well-known in Japan for making beautiful, hard to understand period pieces. There's no English wiki page for her, yet, but a few of her titles have been fan scanilated on Manga Fox. The Japanese wiki shows a good 16 titles with just one publisher (Asahi Sonorama). She debuted in 1993 with My Beautiful Green Paresu (Paresu could be "Paris", although the Japanese pronunciation of "Paris" is "Pari"). She was born on April 11, but generally refuses to publicly announce the year beyond simply "196X". She was nominated for the 2005 Tezuka Cultural Award for her story Beyond Twilight, but the winner that year was Naoki Urasawa with Pluto.
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Tabibito no Ki, by Ichiko Ima, Grade B+
"Tabibito" is "traveler" or "tourist", and "ki" is "tree" or "wood". Taken together, we get "The Traveler's Tree". This 176-page volume is a stand-alone collection of 3 short stories. While they are set in the same universe, the characters don't reappear in the other chapters. The artwork is light and airy, with thin lines and lots of white space. Unlike most shojo manga, the eyes don't sparkle and there's no flowery backgrounds behind the character close-ups. Quite often, panels of characters talking to each other won't have backgrounds, but when there are, they're very detailed and well-drawn. It is sometimes difficult to tell whether certain elegant, attractive people are male or female, and this is used as a joke in one scene when a villain discovers that a tom-boy is actually female. Usually, though, the facial characteristics or type of dress makes it pretty clear which is which.
The stories are all set in a barren land surrounded by desert and spotted by the occasional oasis or mountain castle town. Most of the people living in the oasis villages are rural human farmers and craftsmen. Their link to the outside world are those members that act as caravan guides. Some of the caravans travel (as small as just 1 or 2 people) to the mountain towns, where the "kijin" (demon folk) live in harmony with the humans there. Some kijin look like humans, but with horns on their forehead, while others are large donkeys or fish. In most cases, kijin don't age, and can live for months without food or water. They also can perform limited kinds of magic, or write protective runes on people's faces to ensure good health and well-being, but these letters tend to be permanent. One of the drawbacks to being a kijin is that one has to stay near the source of the things they need as nutrition, such as a specific plant or animal. Some of them cultivate special kinds of snails that, once buried in the desert, create the foundation for a new oasis.
The chapters are:
Toukage no shiro no tsumetai Jouoh (The Cold Queen of the Cliff-face Castle). Suy is a young boy living in an oasis village. He's cared for by Sadek, a young man with fish scales on his forehead, when their father is off on a trading mission. All his life, Suy has been told that his mother was killed by the "Cold Queen living in the Cliff Castle", and he hopes to be able to follow his father's footsteps as a traveler in order to confront the Queen. The villagers constantly amass gold and jewelry to appease the Queen, and to use as a dowry when getting married. Sadek wishes to get permission to marry his girlfriend, so he makes the trek to the mountains. He's then followed by his father and his girlfriend. Some days later, Sadek returns alone, carrying a wrapped package that he gives to the girlfriend's parents, and they assume it contains their daughter's head, killed by the queen. Suy goes into shock, and spends his time sitting on a rock outcrop, staring at the desert. Time goes by, and a pair of kijin arrive at the village. One of them, a large humanoid donkey, pledges his allegiance to Suy, so the boy uses the kijin to carry his goods in preparation for his first job as a traveler. The two of them get halfway up the hills and encounter a giant rock that's called "The Cold Queen". Turns out that "the Cold Queen" is an euphemism for a death that occurs in the mountains. A little later, the two get to the castle gates, where watchmen refuse to let anyone enter without a passkey. Suy inherits his father's key and gets inside only to find Sadek's girlfriend carrying a baby. The girlfriend explains that she and Suy's father had found Sadek in front of the castle gates, pleading to be let inside. The three of them got in with Suy's father's key, but that the old man fell ill while trying to negotiate housing for the couple. She also talks about the snails raised in the castle by the kijin and how they're used for creating a new oasis. (We're now shown the second kijin that had gone to the village with the donkey; he's in the desert planting a snail). Sadek was given a snail to donate to the village, and that's what he'd handed over to his girlfriend's parents (without explanation because they disapproved of Sadek). Finally, Suy is told that his mother, a kijin, is still alive and living in the castle. The chapter ends with the boy standing in front of his mother's house.
(Sanin and the soldier. The soldier is talking about his affair with the princess.)
Zainin no Oka (Sinner's Hill). Sanin is a young girl living with her mother and grandmother, working as apothecaries in a castle town. Some miles from their house is a big hill used for executing criminals and heretics., and when the wind shifts direction they close their windows to prevent evil from entering the house. The town is ruled by priests serving a king and princess, and the priests have sentenced a perverted old soldier to death. Kazarasu is the priest tasked with performing the beheading with a special sword given to him by the church. When the priest, two assistants, and the prisoner set out the next morning, Sanin joins them to collect herbs at the hill and to find out what had happened to her father, who'd also been executed for failing to save a sick royal family member from a fatal illness. Along the trip, Sanin tends to the prisoner, who mistakes her for a boy and keeps asking if "he" has an older sister. Eventually, we learn that the prisoner's "sin" was that the princess likes guys who are rough, and the church is trying to cover up the affair. At the hill, Kazarasu finds that the sword has already been stuck into the ground and when he tries to pull it up, the blade breaks off (Sanin had snapped it when no one was looking). Sanin searches for a skull that she can treat as her father's and the priest picks one for her. Kazarasu then ties up the prisoner to leave him to starve to death on the mountain of bones. However, the soldier kicks himself free, causing the priest to stumble backward and smash his head on a rock. Sanin uses this opportunity to free the prisoner, then she takes the wrapped up skull to the 2 assistants to tell them that both the priest and prisoner were eaten by demons. The assistants decide to turn rogue and sell Sanin as a slave, but the soldier shows up at night to drive them off and rescue the girl. The priest recovers, having just been knocked unconscious and follows them from a distance. Meanwhile, Sanin has been pouring water on the skull as a kind of purification ritual, and it starts growing hair and begins talking, revealing itself to be the remains of a kijin. The demon skull convinces the group to return to the city, where they spring a trap on the king, princess and head priest. The skull announces that the king has been dead for years, and was being used as a puppet by the corrupt head priest, who'd been ruling the crown from the shadows. The priest is sentenced to death instead, and the scene closes with Sanin back at home, and the skull - now fully recovered as the head of a beautiful woman with long flowing golden hair - is the main attraction to the flourishing apothecary.
Hito Yasumi (Taking a Short Rest). This is a one-page omake talking about the contrast between the caravan traveling done in the story, and the author's ill-considered attempt to go mountain hiking herself.
(Titla page for Tabibito no Kutsu)
Tabibito no Ki (The Traveler's Tree). The title story takes up half of the book and is broken up into two chapters. It's also the most convoluted tale of the three. Zuen is a traveler who entertains his children with a story of a princess that is in a caravan that stops at an oasis overnight, but falls ill. The requirement at this oasis is that no one can stay more than one night. The next day, the spirit of the oasis appears in human form, offering to save the woman but only if she'll marry him. The family members agree, but they manage to sneak her back home to marry off to someone more respectable. The princess then spends her days staring through a telescope back towards that oasis and eventually turns to stone. Zuen has three sons - Nomak, the eldest and a fellow traveler; Kem, something of a selfish lout; and Hirai, the youngest and most impressionable. The rock outcrop town they live in has a limited population and constantly demands that outsiders that come looking for trade or a place to stay leave at least one marriageable man or woman behind as payment. The last time something like this happened was some years ago, when the girl, Anriya, was sacrificed to become Nomak's wife. For this reason, travelers now avoid the town when possible. One day, Zuen and Nomak set out to find a wife for Kem, and a little later, an irresponsible prince, Udan, from the ruling kingdom shows up with his entourage. In this group is a pretty female kijin that meets Hirai and starts asking about Anriya. Thinking that the woman, Jinfa, is planning on kidnapping Anriya and taking her back to her parents, Hirai panics and pushes Jinfa into a cave. When he hears the sickening "thump", he's convinced he's killed her and can't tell anyone what happened. When Udan leaves, Anriya is missing anyway. A few days pass and Nomak shows up with a young woman sitting on a camel - the family is sure this is Anriya agin, but it's actually Shishi, a girl marked with a kijin rune on her face, intended as Kem's wife. The family goes into battle mode - with Suen missing, they need to prepare Hirai as their next Traveler, and it'd be better to marry Shishi to the boy instead. Hirai hears this and decides to act on his own, while Kem bullheadedly refuses to give up on the girl that had been promised to him. Hirai takes Shishi up the hill to the cave, where they encounter a guy with a rune on his face. He's looking for Jinfa, and Hirai explains what had happened. The two men go into the cave to explore, leaving Shishi at the entrance. She leans too far in, trying to hear what's going on inside, and she falls though the mouth and splashes into an underground river directly beneath her. Hirai dives after her and the current carries both of them several miles out into a series of canyons carved into the rock in the desert. Hirai recovers to find that the stranger had rescued both of them. They can see an oasis in the distance. (Also, when Hirai decides to run away, a small tree that he'd been tending pulls up its roots and walks out of the village on its own.)
Tabibito no Kutsu (The Traveler's Shoes). In the second half, Kem decides to chase after the prince and/or Hirai to get his betrothed back, against his family's wishes. In the valley, the stranger announces himself to be En, Jinfa's partner. The two of them had been asked by Anriya's parents to see if their daughter is doing well, but they'd never intended to take Anriya from the village. En uses strips of cloth for makeshift shoes for Hirai, and piggybacks Shishi the full day's walk to the oasis. Once there, they find that it's just one tree and some bushes, but that there's enough fruits and berries to keep them alive. Hirai recognizes it from the description of one of his father's stories. En finds a piece of cloth on one branch, indicating that Jinfa is still alive and had left a hint for the direction she'd been heading. En finds a pair of shoes and tries giving them to Shishi, but she refuses them because they're from her home town and she doesn't want to be reminded of that, so he uses twine and pieces of wood to make sandals, but the results pinch her feet so badly that they get discarded and she takes the shoes after all (as they walk off, the bloodied wood starts growing a new branch on the way to becoming part of the oasis).
At the next stop, the three travelers discover Udan's entourage camped out. Udan recognizes Hirai, and is immediately attracted to Shishi. The girl is taken into the prince's tent while En and Hirai are given some water and told to shove off. En urges caution, but Hirai is young and he sneaks to the tent late at night to rescue the girl. He runs into Kem, who has the same idea, and the two burst into the tent. Kem demands to know where Anriya is, and the prince slyly implies that he had his way with her. Kem goes into a rage and stabs Udan with his sword, killing him. Kem escapes, but Hirai and Shishi are captured by the guards and bound. The entourage prepares to haul the two back to the capital for execution, while the order is sent out to have the army wipe out the village in revenge. This is where the continuity starts falling apart: At a rest stop, a lizard, controlled by En, tells Hirai to wait, he'll be rescued soon. At the capital, a priestess is brought to Udan's room to look at the body. The lizard crawls out from under the sheets (although no one notices) and Udan suddenly sits up saying that no one in the group is strong enough to kill him. At the door, both En and Jinfa are standing guard. It appears that the prince and the priestess keep talking to each other after the others leave over a closing montage. Supposedly, the reason Anriya looked like she was putting on weight before she disappeared is that she's a fish-based kijin and was reverting to her original shape. After hiding in the cave next to the flowing stream, she would eventually take on her human form and return to the mountain town again. She meets up with Nomak, who's been getting steadily more ill without her, and he recovers. Shishi and Hirai find Kem, and return to the oasis where En had found that pair of shoes. Two travelers walk by, wearing the same shoes, so Shishi declares that she has to go back home, and Kem goes with her, leaving Hirai alone at the oasis. The army prepares to attack the village, but the underground stream explodes from the cave and floods the surrounding desert, forcing the army to call off the charge and return to the capital. Suddenly, Hirai is caught in a sandstorm, and is apparently saved and nursed back to health by his father. In the last page, Hirai finds himself alone under the tree in the oasis, and he cries as he thinks of his father. The last panel shows the little walking tree continuing to walk across the desert.
Summary: Tabibito no Ki is a very nicely-drawn period piece set in a Mideastern desert, showing in part the importance people place on water in an arid land. Largely, the interactions between people are based on familial and romantic love, with some intrigue and magic mixed in. However, Ima has earned her reputation for writing stories that are hard to figure out, and the ending of Tabibito no Ki can either be interpreted as a heat-induced hallucination, or a variation on Midsummer Night's Dream (contrived by Udan). Personally, I think it could go either way. If you like this kind of manga, then this is the kind of manga you'll like.