Vertical, Inc. has quickly become my go-to provider of manga that I really enjoy that I didn't even know that I wanted. Kou Yaginuma's Twin Spica, Felipe Smith's Peepo Choo, Jiro Matsumoto's Velveteen & Mandala, and especially Nobuaki Tadano's 7 Billion Needles are really good reads. Vertical excels at finding books that are off the beaten path, but still just mainstream enough. Moyoco Anno's Sakuran, scheduled for release in July 2012, looks like Vertical's next big find. The 300-page tale is about Kiyoha, a young woman who quickly becomes the most popular courtesan in Yoshiwara, a red-light district from Tokyo's past -- a time when things were hardly equitable for women, especially young women with their own ideas about how they wanted to live.

We've got an exclusive preview of Sakuran for you. Mature -- but safe for work -- situations after the cut.The publisher's description on Amazon is a pretty great introduction to Sakuran:

Kiyoha didn't choose this life. She was forced into this world at an early age for one reason...she had spunk. A fire burned within her as a child. She would rather fight than cry, and she would always fight if ever put at risk. She caused her caretakers so much grief their best solution was to give her a purpose to be strong and maybe a chance to develop a life on her own. But getting to that point would take years of heartache and misery. Kiyoha's entire life has been in chaos, and she has blossomed in it.

In a less enlightened time than today, Kiyoha would probably be described as "difficult" or "willful." In other words, she has thoughts and opinions of her own, and no interest in doing things that rub her the wrong way. Sakuran is set during a time when women like Kiyoha were under someone else's control, instead of being able to enjoy the fruits of being independent.

I like how Kiyoha, known as Tomeki in this preview, behaves similarly to the protagonist of boys' manga. She's mischievous, doesn't particularly care about authority, and does what she wants, when she wants. She's not too different from Monkey D Luffy from Eiichiro Oda's One Piece or Son Goku from Akira Toriyama's Dragon Ball, but there is one crucial difference between them: While Luffy and Goku get to do what they want and get away scot-free, being the heroes of their stories, Kiyoha must return to Yoshiwara and her guardians. There's an unfairness there that is as plain as day.

Over the course of thinking through the story to write this preview, I tripped over the realization that Kiyoha acts similar to boys' comics heroes. My next thought was that there is a limit placed on her that isn't present for shonen heroes, and that is reflected both in Anno's Sakuran and in real life. A willful man is seen as a hero, a mover and shaker, while a willful woman is a nag. A woman pointing out mistakes in a reasonable way is often considered shrill, while a man tends to be considered reasonable. Anno is playing with our modern understanding of sexism in a story set in the past, and that sounds very fascinating.

I'm really interested to see how this dynamic plays out over the course of Sakuran. I hadn't realized how resonant the story could be, having been drawn in by the awesome art, and now my interest in the book is doubled. I love the last three pages of this preview, where Tomeki and O-Some go to the river to cry. There's a strong core of friendship there, and Tomeki's grin in the last panel is great. She has a secret, and that secret is a beautiful one. I was sold on this book just by how great Anno is at drawing faces, but now I realize that there's going to be a lot of food for thought between Sakuran's pages.

Look for Moyoco Anno's Sakuran to hit bookstores on July 17, 2012, courtesy of Vertical, Inc. Judging by their past track record, it's going to be a treat, and a handsomely-designed one at that.

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