Legend speaks of seven heroes, each one bearing the power of one of the stars of the Big Dipper. Two of these stars are constantly in conflict, destined to battle and throw the world into chaos… Not that Taitou has ever paid much attention to old stories. Headstrong and defiant, he is the last in his village to complete his coming-of-age ceremony—a fact his sister Laila incessantly teases him about. When he is finally deemed worthy, he is presented with the Kenkaranbu, an ancient sword that can only be drawn by a true hero. As the frustrated Taitou struggles to unsheathe the sword, a mysterious thief appears, making off with the blade and citing the legend of the Big Dipper. The stars have been set in motion, as Taitou sets off after the Kenkaranbu and the truth of his own destiny...
First of all, the manga is 100% better than the anime, which I've been watching. While the anime is basically straight shonen cliche, the manga has good points that rise above that. And where the hero's sister Laila is basically there to stand around and be protected in the anime, she's a dynamic hero in the manga and a great character.
This story is written by Hiromu Arakawa and a couple other folks- unfortunately, that shows. A lot of parts are rushed, and some bits aren't cohesive with others. A lot of it is standard shonen- but there are touches of originality (that I personally think
are stylistically Arakawa's and therefore come from her) that make it a bit more worthwhile. The manga has a huge cast of characters that all could be really interesting- but the storyline is SO RUSHED and the cast is so packed we hardly get time with any of them. Taito is very much the standard shonen hero. One character switches sides pretty much offscreen and it's totally unbelievable. Poor Rinmei hardly gets any screentime, and her characterization is pretty much entirely tied to Ryuuko's. Vague Dragonball Z-esque superpowers run wild, character origins are shaky, and the mythology is vague.
But beneath some of the cliche, there's real gems of character relationships, a couple swervy twists, and nice moments of humor that keep it from being completely standard. Taito and Laila's sibling relationship gets really complicated down the line, and I'd say their bond is the shining point of the series. It's also really nice to see manga in a Chinese setting with a wuxia style of storytelling.
Because it;s by Arakawa, the art is gorgeous. Distinct character designs, wonderful comic panels and slapstick, well done fight sequences- her art alone makes it worth reading.
Considering how well the ladies are handled in Fullmetal Alchemist, I was disappointed to see a little more shonen cliche regarding the treatment of women in this manga (Interesting and supposedly talented women get little screentime, or die and then there was one frustrating sequence where the boys order the female characters to stay out of the fight- and despite both being skilled fighters, they do so). I put that down to the non-Arakawa writers.
Laila was consistently my favorite character because she went through the most dramatic emotional upheaval and biggest character arc and was the most entertaining with her sassy pluckiness- but in the first four volumes she was stuck in damsel-in-distress role quite a bit, despite being a good fighter.
But wow, she REALLY SHINES in volume five and you realize that she's gone through a Hero's Journey just as much as Taito. She proves herself to be just as heroic. You could tell this scene was 100% Arakawa since a line from FMA is there basically word for word. The culmination of Laila's journey is basically my favorite sequence in the whole manga and made it worth it to me, and if the anime cuts that out too, I'll spit nails.
So Hero Tales- not the most quality manga (unlike the greatness of FMA), rushed with some cliche, but there's gorgeous art, and some gems of drama, character development and epic battle sequences that make it worth a casual read. And it doesn't hurt that at least one badass lady finally lives up to her potential at the end.