And so in this the second Year of Plague, we come again to our most high of all days, 801, a celebration of the truest and most pure love: hot guys getting busy. I had definitely hoped to be lustily perusing the BL shelves of all my favourite Tokyo bookstores to commemorate this year’s schmexy holiday, but alas! Japan is still determined to keep my fully-vaccinated self outside its borders. A true fujoshi, however, does not flinch in the face of such an obstacle to obtaining her one true love: manga of hot guys getting busy. And fortunately for me, I have a man on the inside popping boxes of smut in the post to me two kilos at a time. (EMS post may never again resume, but small packet air mail mysteriously continues.)
What arrived for me in one of those carefully packed boxes was Kakkou no Yume, a two-volume story from tamekou, who heals my translator soul with My Androgynous Boyfriend. I love their clean art and cute style, and my previous dip into their BL work made me love them in a new and different (schmexy) way, so I was eager to check out anything else they’d done. I’ve seen the covers of these two volumes any number of times, these two incredibly beautiful boys with their shining, parted lips staring back at me from BL displays, but I’ve always resisted picking them up. (Much like Young Bad Education, which I’m sure I will eventually cave to at some point.) For some reason, it felt like the book shelves, PR people, and BL gods were insisting I read this book, and I am nothing if not contrary. The more popular something is, the more I want to run in the opposite direction from it. (This is not a good or healthy trait, but it is there in me, a cursed stubbornness that I work to overcome.)
I talk a lot about the lack of josei translated into English, manga about and largely by women. I don’t have any hard numbers, but just going by licensing announcements and what I see on the bookstore shelves, josei is probably the least published genre of manga in English. As Ed Chavez noted in the excellent Comic Con Manga Publishing Industry Roundtable, josei is a hard sell. (But thank you, Ed, for continuing to try and spread the josei gospel!) And while we’ve gotten some stealth josei recently (like Kodansha licensing Sensei no Shiroi Uso by Akane Torikai), straight-up josei is still a unicorn in the English publishing world.
And if that’s the case for modern josei, then how much worse must the situation be for anything published in the last century? Has any classic josei been published in English? Is Paradise Kiss about as classic as it gets in English? It’s not just the English publishing industry, sadly. Older josei artists don’t really get the royal treatment in Japan either, with most books from before 2000 out of print and next to impossible to get a copy of. Of course, the history of josei is shorter than that of shojo or shonen, so there’s less of a base to build on and it’s easier for these artists to slip through the cracks. Or so it would seem. I am no manga scholar. (Feel free to school me on the history of josei manga, actual manga scholars.)
I’ve long known that Tanabe Seia hosts regular scary story sessions, but in the Before Times, these were held in Osaka, which is a bit of a trek from my usual residence in Tokyo, and while, like everyone else, she’s shifted to online events during the Plague Times, Toronto and Japan are not exactly in the same time zone. Three in the afternoon might be a nice time for spooky stories in Japan, but I am not getting up at two in the morning to listen to them. Also, I am an Old and cannot stay up past midnight or I will turn to dust, and then who will translate all those books sitting on my desk?
So I’ve been curious about what exactly happens at these sessions, and then Osaka Kaidan popped up on the new release list to offer me the chance to find out. I really like Tanabe’s fiction and the detached style of her authorial voice, which adds to the dream-like quality of her subject matter. She doesn’t so much write horror as the odd, the mystical, the world on the fringes, places and characters where lines blur. Her work to me is more about atmosphere than story, giving readers a feeling or an impression, like moody abstraction. Basically, she’s the perfect person to be writing about ghosties and other things that go bump in the night. Osaka is a collection of such tales, gathered through her regular story sessions, but also through random conversations with people in and around Osaka.
As the title suggests, these are spooky stories about Osaka, around fifty of them in total. Each story gets its own chapter, and most chapters are quite short, two or three pages, although some are only a single page long and there are a few that go on for six or seven pages. But for the most part, this is one of those bite-sized books that you can dip in and out of for a very satisfying reading experience. You can also get a big dose of Kansai dialect to mess up your own Japanese for a while, and then you have to be careful in video meetings that you don’t accidentally say “ちゃうねん” because you are not a speaker of Kansai dialect normally, and it might get weird if you were to start suddenly while discussing a translation project with a Japanese publisher.
The truly great thing about manga is the sheer variety. You can get manga about pretty much any topic you can think of. The number of different genres under the cat manga umbrella alone is astounding. Want to read about New York cops? Sure, we got you covered. Looking to delve into traditional arts? No problem. What about the experience of being a foreigner in Japan? Oh yeah. Pancreatic cancer? You bet. Alternate universe Anne Frank? Ballet? Sex cult mini golf? Coming up! Sometimes I wonder how the market can even support some of these books. But then I remind myself that even as the publishing industry is also shrinking in Japan, the population of that country is like five times that of Canada and it is a nation of readers. There are lots of people out there to buy all the weird books.
So it is no surprise that there would be a book on artificial intelligence in human form. But it is a surprise to see such a book coming from Brain favourite Ikebe Aoi, known for quiet portrayals of human relationships. The moment I heard about this one, though, I couldn’t wait to get it in my hands and start reading. Because I could immediately see the possibilities for such a premise in Ikebe’s skilled hands. Plus that title! It makes me swoon somehow. It feels so full of possibilities and heartbreak, especially combined with the cover, that girl looking straight into your soul.
I feel like we’re seeing more and more manga dealing with sex not as some titillating fan service, but as an aspect of life and the world we live in. Or maybe that kind of manga is just on my radar. Because I do appreciate the smut in its many forms. I honestly love that people are willing and able to write more openly about a part of our lives that tends to be relegated to the shadows because we are not supposed to talk about getting off in polite society. It feels like maybe we’re slowly moving past all this body-shaming, slut-shaming stuff and opening ourselves up to all the possibilities of being human and having a body. Bodies are great and fascinating! And weird and terrible, but that is a different conversation.
Mine Nayuka has been happily writing about bodies and sex and people for a while now since she came onto the manga scene with her Arasa-chan, a NSFW look at sexuality and dating and relationships between men and women, way back in 2011. And now she’s doing a series about how her time as a porn actor, which is great so far, but that first volume was released at the same time as this how-to-sex book Chijo Lesson. In a departure from the usual manga way of writer and artist being one and the same person, Chijo has Mine as the artist and her friend and fellow porn star Noa handling writing duties.
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.