I first discovered Kiriko Nananan’s work while reading Secret Comics Japan: Underground Comics Now. Two of her short manga–“Heartless Bitch” and “Painful Love”–were included in the volume. I was quite taken by the pieces and so was determined to find more of Nananan’s manga in English. Sadly, very little has been translated. Another of her short manga, “Kisses,” was collected in Sake Jock: Comics from Today’s Japanese Underground, an early English anthology of alternative Japanese manga. Nananan debuted in the avant-garde manga magazine Garo in 1993, which is one of the reasons her work is found in these “underground” collections. She is particularly well-known for her short manga; Blue is her only long-form manga to have been released in English. Originally published in Japan in 1997, Fanfare/Ponent Mon published the English edition of the manga in 2006 after releasing a Spanish-language edition in 2004. Blue has also been translated into French and German. The manga was also popular enough to receive a live-action film adaptation directed by Hiroshi Ando in 2002.
“The sky that stretches out above the dark sea. The school uniforms and our desperate awkwardness. If those adornments of our youth held any color it would have been deep blue.” Thus begins Kiriko Nananan’s Blue. Kayako Kirishima, a senior at the Hijiri all-girls high school, is fascinated by her classmate Masami Endō, the young woman who sits directly in front of her. Endō was suspended from school the previous year. Because of that and her general attitude, many of the students at Hijiri find her difficult to approach. But Kirishima eventually musters up the courage to finally talk to Endō. Her fascination becomes friendship and eventually love. But their relationship isn’t an easy one. Uncertainty, worry for the future, and past regrets all have an impact on Kirishima and Endō and how they relate to each other and to the rest of their friends. Love can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be painful. As high school draws to an end, they must face the inevitable changes in their lives either together or alone.
Nananan’s artwork in Blue is very simple, almost minimalistic, and yet it is also incredibly arresting. There is very little shading employed. In fact, the use of negative and white space is just as important to the manga’s composition as the deep black of Nananan’s ink work. It has a distancing and cooling effect. The fragility of Kirishima and Endō’s relationship is reflected in the fragility of Nananan’s lines. At times the pages are nearly empty, giving a sense of loss and contemplativeness, as if the feelings of the two young women are in danger of disappearing altogether. Body language is especially important in Blue. Hands in particular are a recurring motif and are very expressive–they reach out to grasp someone or to push them away, they hide a face in shame or frustration. Nananan shows intimacy of varying degrees in Blue through the characters’ actions and touch. It can be extremely sensual, but it can also be very chaste.
Blue has a reflective, poetic, and lyrical quality to it. The manga is a fairly simple and straightforward story of first love which is both sweet and sad. However, Nananan is adept at capturing the realistic complexities of love and all of the feelings associated with it–the jealousy and heartache as well as the happiness and joy. Kirishima is constantly thinking about Endō. Even when she isn’t immediately present on the page Endō is the focal point of the manga and always on Kirishima’s mind. The two of them obviously care deeply about each other and so it is particularly unfortunate that they seem unable to be completely open and honest with each other or with themselves. They are both young and don’t always make the best or most mature decisions. Blue is told from Kirishima’s perspective as she looks back from some point in the future to her high school days with understandable sentimentality. Although the manga is frequently melancholic and intensely emotional, it never comes across as melodramatic. Blue is a beautiful and striking work; I would love to see more of Nananan’s manga translated.