Reporters flock to the newly constructed Triangle Tower, eager to document the commemorative gala taking place inside. But once they arrive, they soon realize they’ll be covering a different type of story. Members of a terrorist cell have taken the partygoers hostage, demanding a ransom in exchange for their lives.
From an apartment across town, Mariko Rosebank watches as a bomb explodes atop the skyscraper, leaving a bloody stain on the building’s glass panes. With the police stretched thin and no option for military intervention, Mariko realizes it’s time to mobilize C.A.T., her squad of women mercenaries and the stars of Kaoru Shintani’s seinen manga, Desert Rose.
During the 1980s, acts of terrorism continued to haunt international headlines as tensions among countries, political factions, and other groups heated up. So when Desert Rose (砂の薔薇 デザート・ローズ) first appeared in 1989, readers were all too familiar with its themes.
Desert Rose follows the women of C.A.T., or Counterattack Terrorism, a special forces mercenary group that works on behalf of world governments and private parties alike. Most of the action is shown through the perspective of Mariko Rosebank, a strong-willed woman who lost everything when her husband and child were killed in a terrorist bombing. Burdened by a rose-shaped scar on her chest, Mariko vows revenge against those who murdered her family.
Under Mariko’s direction, the members of C.A.T. carry out their missions with precision, each specializing in a different tactical area. There’s Helga, an East German defector and Mariko’s second-in-command; Irene, a former US Marine Corps pilot with a big attitude and the heart to match; Jessica, a heavy weapons and explosives specialist who, like Helga, escaped from the Soviet Union; Delilah, a Swedish supermodel-turned-sharpshooter; and Lin, a young woman from Hong Kong trained in the art of assassination.
Despite being a manga for young men, Desert Rose shares more aesthetic commonalities with girls manga of the same period, due in part to Kaoru Shintani’s background as a shoujo artist. Shintani’s femme fatales elegantly pose in full-body portraiture, echoing the classic shoujo fashion shots popularized by artists like Kyoko Fumizuki and Riyoko Ikeda. Melodramatic moments of introspection and sparkling eyes eyes contrast nicely against suspenseful moments of military action and meticulously drawn weaponry.
Perhaps it was this interesting blend of seinen writing and shoujo art that made Desert Rose successful among Japanese audiences. The manga ran in Hakusensha’s Monthly Animal House from 1989 to 1992, when it then moved to Young Animal until its conclusion in 1998. Overall, Desert Rose amassed 134 chapters, each broken down into separate episodic arcs called “files.” After its initial 15-volume tankoubon printing during the 1990s, two more reprints followed, one in 2000 by Hakusensha Bunko and another in 2011 by MF Comics. Both reprints were consolidated into eight volumes. An OVA called Desert Rose: Snow Apocalypse (砂の薔「雪の黙示録」) also hit screens in 1993. Produced by Toei Animation and directed by Yasunao Aoki, the anime explored an original storyline based on Shintani’s characters.
Famous for dabbling in doujinshi circles, Kaoru Shintani published a collaborative crossover series in 2006 called Desert Rose TUG Series (砂の薔薇TUGシリーズ). These shorts featured the women of C.A.T. fighting alongside—or against—characters from other popular works. These include Akihi by Shintani’s wife, mangaka Kayono Saeki; Sukeban Detective by Shinji Wada; Cleopatra DC, another of Shintani’s manga; Gunsmith Cats by Kenichi Sonoda; and Blazing Transfer Student by Kazuhiko Shimamoto.
I’d love to see Desert Rose get an English release, but if I’m being honest, I’m not sure we’ll see one anytime soon. It’s a pretty old title, and after a little internet digging, it seems like it’s not getting a lot of attention among Western manga fans. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong, though; two of Shintani’s manga, Area 88 and Young Miss Holmes, have made it to the North American market. Pair that with the newfound retro manga boom, and who knows? You might see the ladies of C.A.T. headed to a bookstore near you.