Phantom Thieves, Magical Idols, and Strong Heroines: The Legacy of Tanemura Arina

By: Shelby Tozier August 25, 20230 Comments
cover image of Idol Dreams

Shoujo manga artist Tanemura Arina might be best known for magical girl stories, but that wasn’t her original plan. In the chat column for her manga Full Moon O Sagashite, she mentions, “I’ve always wanted to draw an ordinary story. When I made my debut, I didn’t intend to draw fantasies at all.” However, no matter her early plans, the author, illustrator, and character designer has created some of manga’s best-loved shoujo works by combining the aesthetics of fantasy aimed at young girls with complex themes. 

Tanemura began her manga career at the young age of 18 in 1996 when her short story “Niban Me no Koi no Katachi” debuted in Ribon Original magazine. Her early one-shots garnered a lot of praise, and she received about 500 fan letters after her first publication. Tanemura channeled the thoughts and feelings she had gone through fairly recently as an adolescent into stories her young readers could relate to, and described herself as “a delinquent student who would work on manuscripts during class.” 

One year later, she released her first series, I.O.N. The story follows Tsuburagi Ion, who has always recited the letters of her first name for luck and one day finds the letters activate her telekinesis. I.O.N. established many of the hallmarks of Tanemura’s work: complicated love triangles; girls who encounter a magical element in their lives; and a tragedy they need to overcome, leading to acceptance and self-actualization. 

Ion looking shocked, with the letters I O N in separate text bubbles

Tanemura followed up I.O.N in 1998 with one of her best-known works, Phantom Thief Jeanne. The heroine, Kusakabe Maron, is the reincarnation of Jeanne d’Arc and a magical girl who steals priceless works of art to collect pieces of God’s power and prevent them from falling into the hands of demons. In addition to her work as a phantom thief, she struggles with grief over her parents, fears of abandonment, and complicated feelings for her rival. Phantom Thief Jeanne ran for two years and was an international success, selling over five million copies worldwide and receiving a 44-episode anime series. “Until now, I thought I put all of my humanity and emotions, like that, into the manga, holding back nothing… at least that was my intention,” Tanemura said in the corners of Volume 1 of the manga.

Much of Phantom Thief Jeanne’s popularity stems from Tanemura’s willingness to tackle thorny subjects that creators of works aimed at young girls often shy away from, such as purity, religion, consent, and morally gray injustice. Maron learns in the middle of the series that her powers may go away if she loses her virginity, as she would no longer be  “pure”. Despite this fear, she realizes she has fallen in love with a boy. Instead of losing her magical girl powers after consummating their relationship, she gains new insight into what “purity” really means. She declares, “I’m sorry, God. I gave my heart to a human man but I was still able to become Jeanne. So even if she loves someone other than God, a girl can remain pure, no matter who she is… as long as her heart is noble and she retains her pride.” 

Heroines struggling to achieve an ultimately unobtainable form of purity and perfection would become a recurring motif throughout Tanemura’s work. Full Moon o Sagashite’s Mitsuki strives to remain pure-hearted in the ever-watching eyes of the departed ghost of her childhood love Eichi, and Haine from The Gentlemen’s Alliance Cross struggles to show her progress toward becoming a pure-hearted girl to her powerful crush Shizumasa. 

Maron encountering Chiaki in the hallway, with a mid-shot at top and a close shot of their faces and Maron blushing at the bottom

While working on her follow-up to Phantom Thief Jeanne, Time Stranger Kyoko,Tanemura came up with the idea for her next series, Full Moon o Sagashite, which ran from 2002 to 2004 and was adapted into a 52-episode anime series.

The story is about a 12-year-old aspiring singer, Koyama Mitsuki, who is suffering from a difficult-to-treat throat cancer diagnosis. Mitsuki meets a pair of shinigami, Meroko and Takuto, who let her know that she only has one year left to live. After learning this, Mitsuki requests the ability to transform into a 16-year-old alter ego that can sing without the pain of her illness.

One of the major charms of Full Moon o Sagashite’s success is definitely the cute J-pop aesthetics. Tanemura designed Mitsuki’s hairstyle after Kago Ai of Morning Musume, and drew inspiration for the character’s image from Horie Yui’s music. One of the shinigami, Takuto, also became very popular in Japan; in an interview with Anime Feminist, Tanemura recalled, “Takuto was the first male character who got so popular, he overcame one of the places of the girl characters.”

Takuto and Meroko posing

Much like how Phantom Thief Jeanne introduced complexity to Jeanne’s relationship with purity and God, Mitsuki’s situation adds layers to its basic premise of a magical idols, which had been done before in a number of series going back to 1983’s Creamy Mami. Mitsuki herself is facing her own mortality throughout the series, and the shinigami spend their afterlives working because they committed suicide. Rather than going for a pat “carpe diem” mentality, Tanemura uses the subject matter to explore the myriad ways death affects all aspects of life.

Tanemura included a very intimate and personal passage about her thought process behind creating the series’ characters in the notes of Full Moon Wo Sagashite Volume 7, especially the complicated perception of death that each shinigami represents. “The first time I really felt that ‘people die’ was in grade 12,” Tanemura recalls of her reasoning behind the themes of death and suicide in Full Moon. “I was in such shock. It’s not that something happened, or that someone close to me died. I just kept thinking about it and I felt really hopelessly scared. So I decided to think this way, I want to experience ‘death’! But I don’t want to be in pain. Even if I don’t do anything, I will eventually die. So let’s do what I want to do first, one thing at a time. Even now, when I’m scared, I’m scared! So I’m living today for myself, and I try to do my best to protect the people who love me.”

This quote really gives a depth of the themes of forgiveness, retribution, and mourning behind the character’s journeys in Full Moon: Mitsuki’s outright denial of Eichi’s death and pursuit of his validation from beyond the grave; Mitsuki and Takuto’s persistent desire to help heal the various side characters before themselves; and Izumi and Meroko’s constant mutual self-sabotage in a relationship where neither can let one another go nor fully embrace their desire to be together. 

Meroko looking concerned and standing on a roof. Text:
Meroko: Izumi!
Meroko: Izumi!
Meroko: He's not around... I wonder...

In 2004, Tanemura published what she has referred to as her favorite series to write and illustrate: The Gentlemen’s Alliance Cross, which ran in Ribon until 2008. This was Tanemura’s first series without any fantasy elements. She described the overall theme behind the series as “The members of the student council and Shizumasa were all people who had ‘given up’” in the side notes of The Gentlemen’s Alliance Cross Volume 11. 

The protagonist, Otomiya Haine, was born the eldest daughter of the Kamiya family, but at the age of 10 was adopted into the Otomiya family for the meager sum of fifty million yen. As she struggles to cope with her publicly embarrassing situation, Haine gravitates towards gangs and eventually joins one. One night she runs into Togu Shizumasa, the author of a picture book that her father gave to her before she was adopted out of the family. In order to win Shizumasa’s affection and respect, Haine initially goes through incredible self-sacrifice and actualization to become a pure angelic girl. This includes finding a way onto the coveted student council, of which Shizumasa is president. Along with the two leads, the student council includes Ushio, Maguri, and Maora. The group of friends go through their own unique personal struggles involving love, family acceptance, insecurities, and acceptance. 

Haine’s initial goal may have been self improvement for the sake of a fairytale romance, but she eventually learns that she can embrace the parts of her personality she previously thought were unlovable while achieving her own personal brand of “pure” and “angelic” for herself. 

A gloved finger touches a tag that says Otomiya. A young man and a girl in a maid uniform laugh together. From behind, a girl in a maid costume stares in the distance.
Text: That night, Shizumasa-sama said to me... "Live the life you want." But I was too weak at the time... to even try... It was like being in a beautiful dream.

Tanemura has stated within the volumes of her The Gentlemen’s Alliance Cross manga that her main female characters and all of their many types of relationships are based on her real-life friends or stories she has heard on their behalf. She has also conveyed that she wants everyone to feel a sense of connection to her works, saying “I would like for everyone who reads my works to feel a sense of personal enjoyment.” This quote remains very true in The Gentlemen’s Alliance Cross as the story very closely follows the interpersonal relationships of the members of the student council and Haine’s extended and interwoven families. 

In November 2011, Tanemura’s exclusivity contract with Ribon ended and she expanded her reach to become a freelance author and illustrator. Her last exclusive work with Ribon was Sakura Hime Kaden, which ended in 2012. Freed up to pursue more diverse audiences, Tanemura began working on josei manga, starting with the series Neko to Watashi no Kinyōbi, which ran from 2013 to 2015 in the manga magazine Margaret. At the same time, Tanemura debuted Idol Dreams for the manga magazine MELODY

Tanemura frequently has told her stories through the eyes of teenagers and children, but in Idol Dreams she gets to convey the thoughts and feelings of a full-grown adult. She portrays the fears and anxieties of being an adult with the wisdom and knowledge that comes along with it. In this series, the main protagonist, Chikage, transforms into the younger girl she had always wished she was in her youth, and this was done to resonate with Tanemura’s fans who had grown up alongside her work.

A girl lies in bed with a troubled expression

In a short comic included with Volume 1 of Idol Dreams, Tanemura describes her entry into writing adult fiction. She discusses how her editor requested she write “magical girl manga for adults,” but to “get rid of everything that makes it an ‘Tanemura Arina’ series.” Despite touching on the themes of growth, magic, hope, and complex “purity” that have recurred throughout her past titles, Idol Dreams offers a refreshingly mature perspective. Tanemura did a good job subtly keeping in previous elements of her past stories, while creating an exciting new type of story to tell the world. 

Throughout her career, one of Tanemura’s greatest strengths has been expressing characters’ personalities through visually distinctive designs. In 2015, Tanemura took on the role of character designer for something other than her own work for the first time with the Idolish7 multimedia project. Unlike when creating her own characters from scratch and building their personalities and appearances around the needs of her story, Tanemura now had to create designs to bring someone else’s vision to life. Bandai Namco provided her with information about the characters, including each one’s name, color, and personality traits. She incorporated signifiers to convey their personality, such as different sleeve lengths to express an elegant or cheerful personality. She was even allowed to make some unconventional choices, such as giving two characters, Iori and Mitsuki, the same hair color, when typically each idol has a different color to keep them visually distinct. 


Looking toward the future, Tanemura has an array of interesting and fun things planned. Not only have there been a number of recent pop-up shops dedicated to celebrating her iconic manga characters that bring together hundreds of her fans, but Tanemura Arina is still working on shoujo and josei manga, as well as collaborative character design. It’s exciting not only to think about all the upcoming things Tanemura has in store for the world of manga, but the legacy she has created for herself as someone who has written many for young girls that challenged conceptions of what an ideal heroine “should” be.

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