If you’re into something a little different and a little more literary, check out Kingdom of the Winds, a manga stuffed with legend and poetry and which has the same courtly feel of the Tale of Genji.
There are three kingdoms in the Korea of 2,000 years ago: Goguryeo, North Buyeo, and East Buyeo. The Kingdom of Goguryeo, however, has a problem: a jealous and arguably mad king. Though Goguryeo is the largest of the kingdoms and has many princes of which any sire could be proud, King Yuri has been slowly driving them all to death — either directly or indirectly. The story opens with the third prince and our protagonist, Muhyul, simultaneously losing his brother the fourth prince to witchcraft, and Muhyul’s wife giving birth to a boy. Now the crown prince because of the father-inflicted deaths of his two elder brothers, Muhyul is the first prince to have an heir. In fact, he has only one brother left, after the fourth prince’s death — that of the studious and friendly Haesakju. With another prince gone, Muhyul’s father’s attention turns to him, and he must deftly sidestep the oncoming storm of his madness while he and others in the court deal with ghosts, mythical beasts, assassins from jealous secondary wives, and foreshadows of war from the neighboring kingdoms.
One of the great parts of this book is how it focuses on the female characters as well as male. Muhyul’s sister is the tough, magic-wielding Seryu (presumably named after the same blue dragon spirit that’s Seiryuu in Japanese lore), through whom we see flashbacks of the previous princes. Muhyul’s wife Yeon, a regal girl with CLAMP levels of adornment, is a romantic and a precious spirit, through which we see flashbacks of how she came to Goguryeo through neighboring Biryu for political reasons. She has a brother back home who’s the quintessential early-90s bishi, not a mean nor angsty bone in his body.
The publisher of the book is Net Comics, a mostly online start-up publisher that specializes in Korean manwha (aka manga from Korea). Here they’ve picked a strong title to achieve their passion of introducing quality manwha to the West: Kingdom of the Winds is based on the history contained in the Samguk Sagi and the Samguk Yusa (Chronicles and Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, respectively), encyclopedic histories of the three main Korean kingdoms from about 50 BCE to 700 CE. And if the manwha feels a lot like the Tale of Genji, there’s a reason — the Samguk scrolls were compiled in 1145, about 150 years after Genji was finished, both trying to emulate the grand Chinese dynasties’ aristocratic romanticism via text.
Winds was first published in Korea in 1992, and as such has an art style to reflect that. But never fear — it’s the best of fluffy-haired Japanese manga of the same period, such as Fushigi Yuugi and Sailor Moon. The outfits are intricately detailed, and the layouts reveal a strong understanding of cinema: each cell and page is arranged with artistry, but also, different drawing and coloring techniques mirror different types of cinematic storytelling, such as the ethereal silhouette with narration overlay to convey a fade-out transition. In short, this manwha takes chances with art style that the typical manga of the time period lacks, and achieves something worth seeing: a reader experience in between novel and film, and which is more fluid than the typical manga.
The coloring is dark, and so many panels lose definition. Because of large blocks of text overlapping artwork in places, and because it’s raining through much of the volume as well, the cells can feel overwhelmingly busy. However, “the power of a line” comes through, and each cell is an experience.
The book comes with several appendixes to assist in understanding the story in both front and back. However, even with them, you’ll need notes if you’re not familiar with Korean names. Like The Tale of Genji and other epics of ancient times, the story of this manga jumps right in, not bothering to explain relationships within the narration, at least not at a pace modern readers would be used to.
However, there are translated poems throughout the manwha, probably from the source material itself. They’re integrated in the most dramatic moments, to quite profound effect. Take for instance this one about the ethereal beauty of a soul:
People’s hearts must be like these dandelions.
In countless numbers
they swirl around you just like these [dandelion seeds],
but you cannot catch even one. [...]
They float to you so easily
and just as easily float away.
So please promise me
you’ll cat me if I float by.
While Kingdom of the Winds may be hard to jump into a first, any fan of poetry, visual arts, or ancient tales would be remiss to let this book go by.