I’ve been looking forward to reading this ever since I interviewed est em last year, and she told me about how she had been drawing centaurs. But not fantasy-world style, she was careful to specify. Centaurs in our world, doing regular-life shit, just like regular people except with the lower body of a horse. And being in love with her minimal drawings, those slightly wavering, perfectly controlled lines, and her ability to evoke a real emotional response with a few lines of dialogue, I could not imagine this being anything but a good thing. Plus, I love good speculative fiction, and a world where centaurs are an everyday thing sounded pretty speculative to me.
But! I have been a little too free about ordering books from Japan, and causing my shelves to sag, so I resolved to pick this up on my next trip to the land of the rising sun, even though I was really dying to read it. Fortunately, Japanese homophobia saved the day! (The first and last time you will likely read that.) Lady friends who are not legally permitted to marry in Japan decided to cross the ocean for love and get married in much more sensible Canada. And they brought me manga! Lots and lots of manga! (Seriously, I have seventeen volumes of IS to wade through. Which, yes, I am excited about. Such is my manga nerdiness.) And yes, one of those was Hatarake, Kentauros! or “Get to Work, Centaur!” in English.
I really hope this one makes it into English because it is so disarmingly charming. Yes, charming. I am not afraid to give that label to a book. The common thread in this collection of stories is, of course, work and centaurs. The first stories follow Kentaro, a centaur who has come to Tokyo from Hokkaido to work as a salesman. He oversleeps, gets speeding tickets for running too fast and gets his co-worker to wipe him down when he arrives at work, sweaty from too hard of a run. The Japan in Hatarake is one in which centaurs have long existed, but have only recently been granted legal rights. Now, they have centaur lanes in the big city, so a centaur can run safely on the roads to get to the office for a long day of selling equine products.
Kentaro’s stories give a sort of silly air to the collection when you first start reading. There are jokes about eating carrots, and a woman caught feeling him up in the elevator because she just loves horses so much, she can’t help herself. There’s a lightness to the first chapters, even as we see the obstacles and prejudices that centaurs still face in Japanese society. But as in her previous BL works, est em digs deeper than silly horse jokes.
If you didn’t know about BL, you probably wouldn’t even think twice about this collection. I mean, in terms of man sex. As in there is none. But the book is populated almost exclusively with gorgeously depicted men meeting man-centaurs, and developing meaningful relationships. And this is what brings me back to est em over and over again. Her drawings are incredible, her storylines are always entertaining, but there are few other comic artists able to build such a credible and deep relationship between two people in just a few pages. One story that brought tears to my eyes was “Kutsu Shokunin”. The centaur loves shoes and stands in front of a popular shoemaker’s shop every day, drinking in the shoes on display, until the young shoemaker Will invites him into the workshop for a tour, and eventually a job as a shoemaker. The key point in this story is that centaurs age differently than humans and so even as the years pass and Will ages, the centaur remains the same. And est em makes this sad fact real with just one page, each panel showing Will a little older and the centaur unchanged. So moving and reminded me so much of Lazarus and Dora in Time Enough for Love by Robert Heinlein (a nerd favourite of mine).
My Japanese lady friends also brought me equus, which I have been thinking of as a kind of companion piece to Hatarake, but with more sex, so it’ll be interesting to see how the two compare, given that they were released at almost the same time and deal with very similar subjects. Right now though, I’m glad I spent half of a rare day off indulging in a new est em treat. And even if this doesn’t get translated into English, it is worth picking up for the visuals alone. Such beautiful, carefully considered art. Just flip through it and feel warmed. Then pray for the English translation because it’s even better with the stories.