MICHELLE: One of us is sad and one of us is sick, but we’re still putting our woes aside to talk about some new manga this morning. I guess that makes us troopers, huh?
MJ: Or masochists, one of the two.
MICHELLE: I… had not thought about that possible interpretation.
MJ: That’s what I’m here for!
MICHELLE: MJ, dispensing disturbing interpretations since the 1970s!
MJ: You know it!
We’ve been away from this column for a while, for various reasons, and to crank things back up again, we thought we’d take a look at a couple of recent releases from one of our favorite publishers, Vertical, Inc. First on the docket is a rare classic from the late Satoshi Kon, Tropic of the Sea, written while Kon was still a college student, and first published in Japan over twenty years ago.
Yosuke is the teenaged son of a village priest, whose family has long guarded the secret of a mermaid’s egg, which was reportedly entrusted to his forebears in return for the continuing safety and bounty of their small fishing community. According to legend, the egg must be protected and watered regularly for sixty years, at which point it is returned to its home and replaced by a new one. As the next in line to care for the egg, Yosuke is charged with bringing fresh seawater up to the shrine in which it is kept, which he does both out of duty and a lingering fondness for the legend he believed as a child.
When Yosuke discovers that his father has sold out their family secret to land developers seeking to transform the village into a sprawling resort, he is mildly appalled, but not nearly so much as his grandfather, who, enraged by his son’s hubris, risks his life in an attempt to return the egg to the mermaids as promised. Meanwhile, the villagers wage their own battle with the land developers whose promises of luxury and prosperity threaten their way of life. As the volume continues, Yosuke must decide what he believes and what is really important as he watches his community and his family being torn apart over their land and the mysterious egg.
MICHELLE: Usually, stories about families who stop honoring their contracts with supernatural beings never end well, but I was pleased that this story took a slightly different route. That said, I often times found the pacing disjointed. Perhaps Kon was trying to cram as much story as possible into a limited number of chapters, but there were a few transitions that puzzled me. And in the end, it all just seems to zip by so quickly, and I got a much firmer sense of the awesomeness of Yosuke’s dog (Fujimaru) than many of the human characters.
MJ: I realize that it might be the decongestants slowing me down, I didn’t have quite the same experience. While some sections did feel a bit zippy—particularly the final confrontation and chase with the land developers, I appreciated way Kon slowly and quietly revealed his characters’ truths, particularly Yosuke’s. For instance, while it’s clear early on that Yosuke has some kind of painful past association with the water that makes him reluctant to swim, Kon avoids the sort of carefully manipulated drama that would normally accompany a hero’s childhood trauma. There’s obviously an issue—one that his close friends are distractedly aware of—but it results in none of the kind of drama I’d expect from most stories.
First of all, Yosuke is uncomfortable with swimming, but he still *does* it when he needs to, without any tortured posturing. Then, later, when we finally figure out what it’s all about, the drama of the reveal is overshadowed by the larger problems at hand. I found this somehow refreshing.
MICHELLE: I’m glad that it read a bit differently for you. I wonder if part of the problem for me is that I am usually a slow reader, but the art style (which I loved) and paneling and everything made it possible for me to read this much more quickly than usual. Whereas you’re used to reading stuff quickly. I dunno.
But I absolutely agree about the low-key approach to Yosuke’s trauma. I also really loved the final page of the volume, which would be an absolutely ordinary image to anyone who hadn’t read the story to learn its full significance.
MJ: I love the subtlety of that final image, too, and the way Kon consistently lets his artwork do the storytelling. And while I think that this strong instinct to “show, not tell” is probably part of what made it read so quickly for you, it’s also his greatest strength here. I’m not saying that I think this is a perfect work, by any means, and even as much as I enjoyed it, it very much feels like an artist’s early work. But I found a lot to appreciate in it.
So, would you like to introduce our second selection?
Helter Skelter is another one-shot from Vertical, and another sort of cautionary tale, as well. Currently popular model Liliko is much talked about but also, as we soon see, a wretched person. She’s obligated to her agency’s president, whom she calls “Mama,” who helped to transform her from an unattractive and overweight girl into a celebrity with a perfect, but nearly entirely fake, body. Liliko sought fame and adulation and made this choice herself, but is soon disillusioned with the life and dissatisfied with the work and yet terrified of the moment that it all ends. “What happens when I stop being sellable?” she wonders. “Everyone who pampers me now will leave me.”
Meanwhile, a prosecutor named Asada and his assistant are investigating the clinic where Liliko’s procedures were performed as well as a string of suicides committed by former patients.
MJ: Liliko makes for a troublesome heroine, as her disillusionment and fear has created in her a level of cynicism and raw desire that would ruin even the purest soul (which she is decidedly not). In a frantic bid to keep control of someone, even as she’s (literally) falling to pieces, she calls upon her remaining allure in order to emotionally enslave both an eager assistant and the assistant’s boyfriend. She’s cruel, manipulative, and every bit as terrifying as the technology that led her there. Yet, even as we witness her careful destruction of those around her, it’s impossible not to understand her. And perhaps that’s the most terrifying thing of all.
MICHELLE: I thought Okazaki did a great job at making Liliko sympathetic and understandable even while she’s doing utterly horrible things, like ensnaring/tainting Hada (the assistant) and Okumura (her boyfriend). She interrupts them together right after she learns that “Mama” has never sent money back home to her family as promised, and the narration makes it clear that there’s a direct correlation between the discovery and her subsequent actions. And later, after she has “punished” Hada for wanting to quit, she thinks, “I just want to play with bodies. And have fun wrecking others. How can I help it? Aren’t others making a wreck of me?”
And, of course, her jealousy of newcomer teen model Kozue is completely understandable, especially considering that Kozue has come by all of her beauty naturally and is able to be herself in public in a way that Liliko can never be. (One of the things that intrigues the prosecutor about her, after all, is that her responses in interviews are completely devoid of any hint of her actual personality or upbringing.) We can even understand why she might lash out at the woman who ended up marrying the rich guy Liliko had pegged for her safety net, though it’s less easy to understand why Hada and Okumura might do her bidding in actually carrying out an attack on the woman.
MJ: I admit I found them understandable as well, though identifying at all with them may actually be more disturbing than understanding Liliko. Their own relationship is so dysfunctional and lacking, I think harboring mutual shame becomes a sort of sick bonding experience for them. They’ll continue down their road with Liliko, because any attempt to go back only forces them to confront what their relationship has become, which is somehow more uncomfortable than just doing what they’re told. The deeper in they get, the less they resemble themselves, and this is actually a plus for them. That’s my interpretation, anyway.
You know, I was thinking as I read this… I’m always anxious for more josei manga, but I’ll admit that there’s a part of me that bristles at the notion that good stories for adult women must be those that prove that the world is a horrible place filled with horrible people. It’s an ugly, cynical view that doesn’t generally resonate with me at all. But though Helter Skelter is exactly that kind of manga, there’s an honest fury to it that makes me somehow thrilled that it exists. As disillusioned and cynical as Liliko is, Okazaki’s take on her circumstances reads to me as just plain angry. To her, Liliko matters, and as awful as she’s become, Okazaki is still furious on her behalf. Is that a strange thing to say? And my feelings about this were reinforced a million-fold by the way she ends the story.
MICHELLE: No, I think you’re spot-on with that. This isn’t an indictment of Liliko; it’s an indictment of the culture of disposable, commodified celebrity that helped create and destroy her. One of my very favorite pages is quite near the end, where the babble of fans/consumers is now obsessed with obtaining “That.” This just reinforces the idea that Liliko was never a person to them; just a thing to be interested in for a while until the next thing comes along.
And wow, that ending was so unexpected! I wonder whether we’re to take the “to be continued” literally, as in that Okazaki really will pick up the story again later, or if we’re only to take that as a sign that Liliko’s “curious journey of adventure” will continue.
MJ: I selfishly hope for the former, but my hopes may be in vain!
MICHELLE: I don’t know whether I want a sequel or not; I kind of like the ambiguous ending as it is. We will, at least, be getting more Okazaki in English soon, as Vertical will be releasing Pink next month!
MJ: I’m certainly looking forward to it!