The buttload of manga you’re seeing here these days? You have my recent trip to Japan and my inability to leave a book unbought to thank for that. It literally pains me to leave an interesting book on the shelf in a bookshop. Before I can leave the store, I have to stroke it gently and tell it I’ll come back for it. And when a book remains unbought due to circumstances (like going through security too soon at the airport. I’ll get you next time, Book 3 of A Bride’s Story!), it haunts me, popping up at inopportune moments to make me wonder what might have been read.
Happy End Apartment almost ended up being one of those unbought books. I ran across it when I was killing time before a meeting at a newly discovered treasure of a bookstore on the walk from Nakano to Shinjuku. There it was, the new est em. And as I’m sure we all know by now, she just happens to be one of my favourite manga artists these days, BL or otherwise. I probably stood in front of the lovely display for ten minutes, chewing my lip and weighing the pros and cons. I didn’t want to add to my already weighty bag before heading out to my meeting, but I couldn’t bear to leave it there unbought and unread. My aching shoulder muscles won that day, but fortunately, my brain was all dog with a bone, and I was back in the shop the next day, picking up this treasure (along with a stack of other lovelies I had had my eye on).
That stack may have given me permanent spinal damage, but Happy End makes it all worthwhile. A collection of eight intertwined stories, it’s everything I’ve come to expect of est em and more. Ostensibly a BL selection with the stories first published in the BL magazine Citron, this volume is just as at home sitting next to her foray into the world of ladies’ comics, Kono Tabi wa. Although here, the relationships are happening between men, these stories are little slices of regular life and the people in it.
The conceit of the whole thing is a writer named Luca, who answers an ad for a flat after he is kicked out of his own by his lover, and ends up moving into the Happy End Apartments, so named because they sit at the end of Calle Feliz, or “Happy Street”. He has just been dressed down by his editor for writing things that are too gloomy, and instructed to write more happy endings. So he takes the people living in the apartment building as his subjects, and writes their happy endings as they come along. Simple enough, but I do appreciate it when a collection of short stories has this kind of joining thread running through it.
The stories in and of themselves are also quite charming. The man who cannot decide between twins, and so asks both of them to move in with him; the man who stops wearing clothes for three years because he is afraid of taking his lover too much for granted (it makes sense in the end); the boy who refuses to speak and the dollmaker who helps him find a voice again; est em creates such distinct characters and builds real relationships among them in only a few panels. And there’s none of the artificial set-up that you see so often in BL, a clear positioning of one man to be the uke and one man to be the seme. You only see two people coming together (or three if there are twins involved) and struggling to understand how to relate to each other and the world around them.
I feel like her minimalist art only gets more so with each new work she puts out. Backgrounds are almost non-existent in Happy End, except where absolutely necessary, which has the welcome effect of turning the reader’s focus to the human being depicted in the panel, and thus to the relationship that is really the point of the story. And still, despite this artifice, there is such a naturalness to the way she depicts her characters, heads tilting to one side, a hand pulling hair back, that it seems like absolutely nothing is missing. With only a few lines, she manages to convey such longing that my heart practically leaped out of my chest on more than one occasion.
And yes, like life, like her other work, there are moments where you have to laugh and there are moments when you have to hold back tears. The developing relationship between Luca and the landlord is particularly moving, and I’m not ashamed to say that a tear or two did trickle down my cheeks as I closed the book. Finishing Happy End, I had the desire to go back and re-read all of her older work because I wasn’t ready to step back into a world not defined by her precise, yet loose linework.