By You Suzunoki. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Morning. Released in North America digitally by Kodansha Comics. Translated by Erin Procter.
Despite occasionally feeling overwhelmed by new titles, I am grateful to the publishers putting out digital-only series for choosing some series that are clearly experiments, titles that would not have a remote chance of being licensed in print over here but can perhaps reach some kind of an audience digitally. We’re seeing long-running sports titles, some experimental josei, and now we have Kounodori, a series from Kodansha’s flagship seinen magazine about an obstetrician who helps expecting families when he’s not busy being a secret, mysterious piano player. Back in the day, I used to go buy a random Japanese manga magazine from Kinokuniya, crack it open, and see what was in there that we weren’t getting here. This is a classic example. It’s episodic rather than having a continuous plot, goes in for dramatic lectures and births rather than fight scenes, and the art style has characters whose looks are less cute and more natural.
“But is it good?”, I hear you cry. I’d say yes, it definitely is good, provided that you come at the series aware that at its core, this is a melodrama. In fact, it pretty much verges on soap opera. There’s little humor, and those who dislike authority figures moralizing over people in difficult circumstances may dislike the first story especially. But I’d say overall I really enjoyed reading it. The overdramaticness and small stakes help to give it a tense feel that goes along with the plot, as the story is basically “what new crisis is putting a pregnant mother in jeopardy?” over and over again. We start with a poor mother, abandoned by her boyfriend, who has not had any prenatal care until she’s ready to give birth – she is dressed down rather sharply by our titular doctor. The longest story in the book has a wife giving birth prematurely, with all the dangers inherent in that process, and lots of discussion of what’s safest for the mother and the child. A chapter on gonorrhea shows us the dangers of adulterous guys, particularly when their cheating causes harm to their unborn children. Lastly, we get a stripper who needs to have a C-section, and is horrified as she says it would ruin her career.
I’ll be honest, I’m still not quite sure why he also moonlights as a piano player, except to make this something other than a standard medical drama. We do get a bit of Kounodori’s past – he grew up as an orphan, and was bullied – but that mostly serves to show us how he’s grown into a fine compassionate man. There’s also a lot of emotions in this, with the exception of Kounodori himself. The husbands are twitchy, the wives are yelling, and his fellow obstetrician looks to constantly be on the verge of breaking down. And at times the moralizing that Kounodori is prone to can be annoying. But for the most part, I really enjoyed reading a type of series I never thought I’d see over here. I suspect, given its ‘story of the week’ nature, that you can dip into the books at any volume, but the first is always a good place to start.