It would hard to overstate just how much of a departure the last few chapters of Otoyomegatari have been from earlier chapters in the series, and indeed from anything Mori-sensei has written – this is an order of magnitude more harrowing than the disastrous rail Amira’s family staged in order to try and steal her back from Karluk’s family. The rising tension of the recent chapters builds to a crescendo in #33, which is thrilling, chilling and unsettling in a way only such a chapter in such a series could be. We’re so used to seeing these characters in a different (and much less perilous) context that seeing Karluk and Amira facing death at the hands of first her family and then the treacherous Batan is alarming to say the least.
First things first: Mori does a fabulous job in this complete change-of-pace, delivering the goods in a big way. There was never any question the art would be technically perfect (Mori is the finest artist in manga today, in my opinion) but Mori displays a keen eye for the details of battle, with chaos and confusion reigning everywhere and panic in the faces of the combatants. The writing is every bit its equal – the chapter is breathlessly exciting and terrifying in turn. If Mori ever chose to take a crack at this sort of series full-time, I’ve no doubt she could pull it off.
Mind you, I’d rather she didn’t turn Otoyomegatari into that series – there’s pretty much no one else who could have told the story Mori did in the first 30 chapters as well as she did, and certainly no one who could have illustrated it more beautifully. But my appreciation both for the artist and these characters has grown with this turn in the story. The new star is Azel, who’s stormed into the fray these last few chapters and taken command of the story in a big way. It’s been clear since his family hatched this disastrous plan that Azel was fully aware of how misguided it was, but he was obviously torn between his common sense and his loyalty to his clan in a time and place where clan loyalty was sacrosanct.
It wasn’t until the Batan had turned on the Halgal that Azel finally dispensed with protocol and took matters into his own hands. He ordered his father and the elders to flee, under the protection of his brothers, and went back to try and do as much damage to the Batan (who were finishing the job of routing Karluk’s village) as he could. This was a courageous act to begin with, as there was really no practical value to it, though whether his intention was to help his sister’s family without his father knowing or simply to extract a little revenge it’s too early to say. In any event he proves himself practically Legloas-like as a fighter, dispatching the Batan chief with an arrow through the throat (richly deserved) and picking off one Batan after another while riding full-speed.
What happens at the close of the chapter is highly dramatic and a bit confusing, to say the least. Azel spots Karluk defending himself against a swordsman on horseback, and go down after his spear is shattered. It seems likely that Azel was about to come to his aid when Amira intervenes herself, shooting the man’s horse and springing to the ground, but not before Karluk is wounded in the shoulder. As is so often the case in battle it’s hard to tell what’s happening in the chaos, but it seems Amira is wounded herself in subduing the man, and it’s Karluk this time who springs to her aid, shielding her with his body.
Wow… At this point I’m not even sure whther the mass of men surrounding the trio at the end are Karluk’s villagers or the Batan – I think it’s the former – but Azel’s addressing of Karluk by the term “Honored Brother” suggests he’s openly respecting their union at last. It’s hard not to be moved by Amira and Karluk’s unwavering courage and dedication to each other – this unlikely couple is one of the strongest in manga or anime, age be damned. It was very, very hard seeing them forced to fight for their lives, and I very much want to believe that Azel is overtly going to fight on their behalf from here onward – both because I want to believe it of him, and because they’re going to need all the help they can get.