The nice thing about reading books about books is that they often introduce you to other books. And while I was a little unhappy about the lack of critical analysis in Shojo Manga no Uchu, I was very pleased by the comprehensive lists of science fiction and fantasy shojo manga that have come out over the last seventy or so years. So naturally, I marked a whole bunch of them down on my reading list, even though I have so many books on that list that it would take me several long lifetimes to read them all. I am an aspirational and irrationally optimistic reader.
Of the many books highlighted in Shojo Manga no Uchu, the one that most intrigued me that was still in print was Eve no Musuko-tachi, partly because it was described as Aoike’s big break and big breaks are always interesting to read. The big break manga are reflective of the tastes of audiences and can signal shifts in the reading landscape as something that never managed to get traction before suddenly takes off. But I was mostly curious about this title because it sounded absolutely bonkers. And you know how much I love bonkers books. (An aside: I feel like we see less of this kind of absolutely unhinged story nowadays than we used to in the seventies and eighties. I propose manga artists bring back the bonkers.)
If you’ve ever been to Japan, you know the service pretty much everywhere is top notch, something that always leaves me disoriented when I return to Canada and cashiers who won’t even tell me the total they would like me to pay in exchange for the goods I would like to take home. And I get those grumpy retail workers on this side of the ocean. I worked in the service industry for a solid decade of my life, and it can be soul-suckingly awful, especially when you throw in customers who truly believe that garbage about the customer always being right. If that were actually true, then Michael Bolton is a better musician than John Coltrane (as one customer insisted to me in my record store days). And we all know that that is simply not possible.
It’s not like Japanese customers are so much better than Canadian customers, and that’s why the service is so great. I’ve seen plenty of jerks berating clerks and waiters over the years. But there is a whole system of training people for customer service that I’ve never seen in Canada. The closest I got to systemic training was when I started at a certain national clothing retailer, and they made me watch a video. (And take a very dodgy personality test.) For the most part, you get taught how to use the cash register, how to make a bank run, how to cash out—basically, how to do the business parts of the job. For the customer service parts, it’s usually “make sure to greet everyone within two minutes of them entering the store”, and that’s the end of it. How you greet them is entirely up to you. Not so in Japanese retail! New hires are drilled in what to say when, which is why no matter which Family Mart in the country you go to, the clerks will ask you the same questions in the same order and bow at exactly the same angle when your transaction is finished.
Nishimura Tsuchika takes this customer service training to the next fantastical level with Hokkyoku Hyakkaten. Akino has just started at the titular department store, and on the first page she tells us that it serves all kinds of animal customers so we know right away that this isn’t going to be your average luxury department store. It turns out that extinct or endangered animals are VIA (very important animals) whose every whim must be catered to with the finest service the store can offer. But Akino is still learning and is often scolded by her boss Todo, who appears out of cupboards and other random locations to remind her that he is always watching her. It’s a weird training program, but no weirder than a department store for rich animals.
After perhaps one of the greatest periods of procrastination of my life, I am at last here to tell you about O Human Star, a three-volume series about robots and gender and life and love that is very much worth your time. I picked up volume one waaaaaay back in 2015, a year that seems impossibly far away from this the Second Year of Plague, at the enthusiastic recommendation of comics impresario and now podcast host Christopher Butcher. (The podcast is great. I feel like I’m eavesdropping on my cool friends talking all smart about manga, and I bet you would feel like that even if you don’t actually know these fine people.)
This was at TCAF, back when it was an in-person event instead of online because, as I mentioned, this was back when the Before Times were just the Times. And because it was the usual in-person TCAF, I had to sneak a few minutes away from interpreting for and taking care of our Japanese guests (Aya Kanno of Requiem of the Rose King fame and her editor) to race up to the second floor where Blue Delliquanti had their booth to pick up a copy and get them to sign it (which they did eagerly. They were very nice!), and then race back to my TCAF duties. (The fun part about TCAF online this year for me was actually being able to browse all the exhibitors’ work and check out the panels. Friends, I bought so many books.)
O Human Star was indeed as good as the hype, and I sat down, eager to write about it. I typed two paragraphs, and then the document languished in my brain-fighting folder until this very day when I sat down at the computer once more, determined to actually write something now that I have read not just volume two, but also the concluding volume three (both of which I backed on Kickstarter because that’s how good volume one was). So enjoy this post, six years in the making!
I am a reader of many books, as you may have noticed from the years of my brain battling books on these pages. But I am also a reader of many books at one time. I have a book for reading over breakfast, one that I read when I sit down for some serious reading time, another that I read when I need a quick break from work and I am trying to ween myself off too much time on Twitter (that cursed birdsite), I keep a book in my bag to read on the train when I go out. Different books for different situations. I don’t want to get really engrossed in something over breakfast because I will make myself late for work. But when I take my afternoon reading break, I do want something that will suck me in for an hour and leave me feeling refreshed and ready to get back to translating when I come up for air. And the book that comes everywhere with me in my bag needs to be compact in size, but dense in text for reading so that I don’t zip through it on a long train ride and end up left with nothing to read before I make it back home.
Bunko books in Japanese are basically perfect for carrying around. Small and lightweight, but there is no way I’m going to make it through two hundred pages or more of a book in my second language in a single sitting. I’m a fast reader, but I’m not that fast. Back near the end of the Before Times, I tucked 30 to 40 no Aida into my bag for trains and waiting rooms. And then the pandemic happened and I have been on the train and in a waiting room exactly twice. (To go to the dentist because a pandemic doesn’t mean you can neglect your oral health.) So I wasn’t getting very far in the book and I basically had to start it over because it had been so long since I started it in the first place. So I pulled it out of my bag to make it a breakfast book. Because it is really the perfect book to read in small bites over coffee and a bagel.
I don’t usually come back to a series to write about the end of it when I’ve written about the beginning of it. There are so many other books to talk about, books that haven’t had any words written about them in English, and I’d generally rather give all those other fine warriors a chance at battle with my brain. But some artists and some series head off into truly unexpected and uncharted places, and I feel compelled to come back and smash my head against the keyboard to figure out just where they took me and what it all means.
Shirai Yumiko’s Wombs is one such series, the story of human colonizers at war with a second wave of human colonizers on a planet with a unique alien species that allows pregnant creatures to slip through a separate dimension to warp through our spacetime. Just that sentence right there is a whole lot, right? It’s going to take more than one 1000-word essay to unpack five fat books of that. Takemiya Keiko’s Kaze to Ki no Utais another series that pulled my brain out of my head and put it back in upside down. Ten books of drama that never stopped upping the stakes and taking me on the wildest shojo rollercoaster I’ve ever ridden.
Reading volume one of Amazoness Kiss back when it came out in those glorious Before Times when I could still go to Japan and fondle books (not in a creepy way) (well, maybe it was a little bit creepy) in the bookstores, I wasn’t expecting to need to revisit the later volumes here. It seemed like it was on track to continue as an extension of ideas that Ishitsuyo had been working through in Magician A (get your copy today!), pushing further into the concept of business as occult and the working of the modern world into a kind of mythology. But then she trots out a mini golf putt-off between occult sex club and an astral projection cult, and well, here we are, discussing the ending of Amazoness Kiss.
I actually started reading this series years ago. I got through book one and realized that for some reason, I did not have book three even though books two and four were sitting on my shelf. I knew when I started this saga, Takemiya’s first real long-form work, that it was complete in four volumes and so I intended to purchase all four volumes and read the whole thing at once. And yet? Volume three was not there. Did I lose it? Did I somehow overlook that three comes between two and four? Who can say! All I know is that upon discovering the lack of a volume three, I decided to shelve the series until I could read it in its entirety.
But oddly, volume three turned out to be impossible to obtain. No bookstore I frequented had it on its shelf; my favourite online retailer continually listed it as unavailable. I feared that I would never find out what happened to prince-turned-slave Sariokis (I don’t know how to spell any of these ridiculous katakana names). And then a couple months ago, volume three was suddenly available once more. So I clicked on that order button and had it sent to my home away from Tokyo. Now, the tale can be told.
Friends, it has been a month! And there are still two more weeks of April to get through. I might not make it, to be honest. We’re over a year into this pandemic and the online-ification of all events, so really, I should have seen this coming. And yet much like I am taken off guard every normal year by the arrival of May and the season of the festival that is TCAF, I was caught unawares by April and the need to prep all things TCAF for release during the actual festival. So the past few weeks have been a flurry of emails and time zone calculations and recording sessions on top of my usual deadlines and translation work. And because the manga industry is booming these days, I have had more translation work coming across my desk (not a complaint!), so I am now basically a husk of the person I was once. Just picture a desiccated corpse Junji Ito-style somehow still alive enough to type these words.
So you can see how I would want some comfort reading to soothe my frazzled soul and keep my thoughts from straying back to all my deadlines and why did I take on so many projects for the month of April is this the end for me oh no oh no. Normally, I would dig into an old favourite like Itoshii no Nekokke, but Mount Bookstoberead grows ever taller, so I figured I should at least check if there was anything in there that could serve as a comfort read. Lucky for me, Hotai Shojo Kikan was near the top of the pile, and while the cover and title promised bandages and injury, it’s a yuri book, so I knew I was at least guaranteed some poignant moments of love to accompany whatever trauma lay in its pages. Plus, I really enjoyed Sudo’s more recent rewind of a love story, Yume no Hashibashi, and was ready to happily devour more of her work.
Like most people not of the porn world (well, I did write that column for a porn magazine, but I didn’t know it was a porn magazine until later, so I think that makes me a non-pro when it comes to porn), I came to know Mine Nayuka through her debut manga series Arasa-chan, a yonkoma about a thirty-ish woman who has a lot of sex as she navigates just who and what she is supposed to be as a woman transitioning out of young adulthood. I’ve only read bits and pieces of the manga, but it was made into an R-rated drama that is available on Netflix (Japan), and I enjoyed the hell out of that. The manga has basically zero backgrounds in any panels—the focus is entirely on the characters—and the way the drama maintained this artifice was to set all the action in very simplistic sets that would never be mistaken for a real place. Plus, they also feature funny and revealing discussions with Mine and Dan Mitsu, the actor who plays Arasa-chan, at the end of episodes. If you have access to Netflix Japan and don’t mind a little sexy with your silly, this is one to check out.
But before she was a manga artist, Mine was a porn (or adult video = AV) actress. And her new series AV Joyu-chan is the semi-autobiographical tale of her life in the world of porn. As the cover copy notes whether you wanted to know it or not, this book is going to tell you some things about porn. And yes, there are things in here you do not want to know. I have a pretty strong stomach (I’m usually the one bringing up the weird gross thing over dinner), but I happened to be reading a particular scene while eating, and the nausea was pretty immediate. I won’t spoil the surprise for you, though.
I have been rearranging my bookshelves because that is a thing I enjoy doing and also a thing that needs doing. I keep my books organized by genre, and I read more in some genres than others, so shelves were starting to buckle down under the weight of books piled on top, behind, and around the books that were there so neatly in the beginning. Plus I always have more books than my shelves have homes for, so it takes some real creative rearranging to keep my entire apartment from looking like a used bookstore in Jimbocho.
In the course of shuffling books from here to there back to here and then to way over there, I discovered some lost treasures including Funukedomo, an early novel from Motoya that I picked up in its paperback form at the Roppongi Hills Tsutaya back when it was still new and fresh. (And typing that makes me feel incredibly old, but yes, children, I was there when Roppongi Hills opened. I might turn to dust at any moment.) I know this because inside the book, I found a fancy Tsutaya bookmark complete with a little map of where to find the Tsutaya. I didn’t remember the book until this reshelving adventure, but I do remember the moment of buying it with startling clarity. Chatting with my friend about how I’d heard of this author, her encouraging me to pick it up then, both of us feeling somehow like the nouveau riche shopping at the fanciest Tsutaya I had ever been in until the one in Ginza Six opened up. And it’s not even that fancy, I was just used to going to the ancient grimy one in Shinjuku.
It happens sometimes. You make a connection with a book before you’ve even read it. But I figured I should at least read the thing to finish the memory-story. So I did, and wow! It’s like all my favourite classic shojo manga with the Extreme Drama, but polished into a beautiful prose gem. It might only be two hundred pages long, but Motoya packs a whole lot of emotion and ideas and story into this thing.
If you’re a fan of classic shojo artists like Hagio Moto or Takemiya Keiko, you have noticed the science fiction works that dot their oeuvre, books like 11 Nin Iru! or Terra e. If you have dived a little deeper into the Year 24 Group to read artists like Yamagishi Ryoko and Oshima Yumiko (sadly unpublished in English), you’ve come across a lot more speculative manga and maybe wondered to yourself just what was in the water back in the seventies that got all these ladies drawing space ships and spirits. Because I would like to add it back to the water now and get some hot new science fiction from someone like Anno Moyoco. (Can you even imagine what that would look like??)
This is not to say that no manga artist is doing SFF these days. But the particular combination of shojo artist and speculative fiction seems to have fallen out of favour, to the detriment of both genres. The grand ideas and fantastic vistas of SFF seem tailor made for the drama, romance, and introspection that mark shojo manga. And indeed, we saw this perfect marriage in the explosion of popularity of SFF shojo in those long-ago decades. Takemiya’s Bright no Yuutsu, for instance, is a glorious mashup of everything great about these two genres. And I want more, dammit. (If you know of any shojo SFF that I should be reading, you should get down to the comments right now and tell me.)
So I am clearly the target audience for a book about science fiction in shojo manga in the seventies and eighties. And let me take this moment to appreciate the glory of the Japanese publishing industry, producing such a niche book not as an absurdly expensive text from an academic press, but as something that can sit on the shojo shelves at your local bookstore. Less than two thousand yen for an extremely in-depth history!