It's a shoujo manga about a schoolgirl who gets transported to a fantasy world. Everyone keeps comparing it with Fushigi Yuugi, which is a reasonable starting point for discussion. I read it because it was a favourite of Tomoko's when she was a girl and we had it on the bookshelf. I was curious. In the end I didn't love it, but I thought it was solid.
Quick synopsis: Noriko gets caught in a terrorist explosion and transported to another reality. (It would be nice if that were the usual outcome.) There she meets a tall, taciturn man called Izark who's a superhumanly strong fighter and has a bizarrely long neck. And flowing hair. Longer than hers, in fact. Together they will make friends, fight monsters and defeat enemies!
There's nothing wrong with the manga at all. It's well done. I quite enjoyed it... but I wasn't devouring it at top speed either. What stopped me from loving it more, I think, is that it's a bit too action-oriented for me. (Ironically for a shoujo manga.) Quite a lot of the story is simply about Izark fighting baddies, which to be honest isn't that interesting. Izark lacks personality. He's one of those stoic swordsmen in the samurai tradition, i.e. he's a walking cardboard cutout. Handsome, but dull. He's also so strong that it's almost impossible to find an opponent capable of slowing him down, which some might also see as a problem. Eventually Noriko thaws him out and he even occasionally gets to be funny, but he's still fairly one-dimensional as a supporting lead character and at best only makes it up to "okay".
Noriko's great. I liked Noriko. However for the first few volumes I was tending to get a bit bored whenever Noriko was offstage. This world's soldiers, politicians, etc. weren't really doing anything for me.
Eventually, though, things improve. This is usually the ugly characters. One thing Tomoko particularly likes about this series is that Kyoko Hikawa isn't afraid to draw ugly people. A lot of shoujo is populated entirely by Bishounen Sparkles and Pointy Chins of Death, who in fairness aren't absent here either. There are beautiful people. However we also have Gaya (a hippo in a dress), Barago (balding neanderthal with a forehead like a truck's bumper) and Doros (retarded lump with sideburns). This is great. Anyone who's dog-ugly is generally one of the best characters, whereas the pretty boys are more anonymous.
The art's good, by the way. Nice and clean. Hikawa can draw action, which can't be said of all shoujo. Noriko has Shoujo Heroine Face, mind you, which is less human-looking and so a bit less expressive. You'll have to get used to that. It can also be hard to tell age differences, so there's a mother who looks no older than her daughter.
Noriko's great virtue, by the way, is being sensible. (That's the main difference between this and Fushigi Yuugi. If Miaka hadn't had authorial immunity as the latter's lead character, she'd have been getting herself killed ten times an episode.) Noriko has a head on her shoulders. She wouldn't get hysterical just because, say, she's realised she's hugging a boy or because she's said something embarrassing. She's practical. She's funny. She has beautifully poised body language. She does the best she can and can be awesome when circumstances give her a chance to make a difference. On discovering that no one here speaks Japanese, for instance, she simply learns their language instead. (It takes her a long time, unsurprisingly, and gives rise to a fair amount of humour.)
It's a romance, of course. That goes without saying. It's expected of the genre. Noriko and Izark are obviously going to end up together. However that's not the sole focus of the story, or even really the predominant one. There isn't a love triangle. The romance there is is good, though, with Noriko and Izark building a practical, strong relationship in which tough, strong Izark surprisingly ends up being the more emotionally dependent one.
The manga also teases us. Pulse-pounding romantic intensity is surprisingly rare, so you'll be watching like a hawk for clues that Noriko and Izark's relationship might have stepped up a level while we weren't watching. There's dialogue to suggest that they're sharing a bed before we see them doing so, for instance. (There's no proof that they've done anything more than kiss, mind you.) When Izark invents a lie that Noriko's a princess who's eloped with him, she doesn't turn a hair at the public announcement of elopement and gets shirty about the "princess" bit. I'd been expecting it all to end with Noriko being pregnant, but no. The manga's preserving just enough deniability to rule that out... while we're watching, at least.
They feel real together. Obviously the manga's genre is fantasy, but it's a down-to-earth kind in which Noriko and Izark's relationship feels earned.
The story rambles a bit. This was a ten-year saga, so the manga will introduce a bunch of supporting characters only to leave everyone behind and have Noriko and Izark go to a different continent. This can smell of long-running series storytelling rather than something more unified, but that's okay. They all come back before the end.
At the end of the day, it's okay. Worth a look. Does the job. It has a satisfying ending. However it's more remarkable in the context of 1990s shoujo manga, which won't mean much to most people today. (It has a heroine who's not an idiot, an action storyline, well-drawn fight scenes, realistic politics, ugly characters, etc.) I don't think it's primarily character-driven, instead going more on magical prophecies, sword fights and the schemes of wicked rulers. This can make it a bit impersonal, alas. It has humour, but only occasionally. Nonetheless this is still a reasonably likeable series and the supporting cast can often be quite fun. Personally I think my enjoyment was largely driven by Noriko. (This is good, since she's the heroine.) My favourite bits were the ones that let her shine, e.g. language-learning gags in vol.4, her action hero stuff in vol.7 or vol.9, or the comedy when a princess shows up in vol.10.
In 2004, incidentally, this won the 35th annual Seiun Award for best science fiction comic. It's also been released in English by Viz Media. It's not a famous title, partly because it never got an anime adaptation, but it's pretty good.