So this is another one of those treats that The Beguiling pops into my hands every so often with the words, “Tell us what this is about.” It’s my mystery reading challenge! Generally, I’ve never heard of the publishers of these books, much less the authors, and information on either is often hard to come by online. Hon no Sukoshi no Mizu publisher Sun Comics is very nearly one of those publishers—I’ve heard the name but know basically nothing else about them (feel free to school me in the comments!)—and Fumiko Okada is one of those authors.
But what a treat she is! And an even bigger treat is the chance to discover a new lady artist from way back in the early days of lady artists in alternative manga. According to Wikipedia, she made her debut in Osamu Tezuka’s COM (which notably published Phoenix) in 1967, with Hon no Sukoshi being published in 1978. The volume has ten solid stories, all of which were published in COM before being collected into this book. All ten stories touch on the surreal or fantastic in one way or another, and tend to focus on loss, desire and belonging. Yeah, lots to take in here.
What really struck me right from the first pages is how her style is so reminiscent of the Nishioka Kyodai. The flatness of the work, everything on the same plane with little to no perspective, the lanky bodies with black pits for eyes, the chunks of geometric hair, the Nishiokas share a lot with Okada, so much so that I found myself wondering more than once if Okada’s work had been an inspiration for them. But Okada’s style is more like the Nishiokas mixed with some classic shojo big eyes. It’s odd at times, but at other times, it really works, the girl with the big sparkly eyes next to the guy with hollow pits for eyes and his long, flowing (somehow) neck. Oh, the necks in this book! Seriously, if you love a dreamily expressive neck, you should just hunt this one down at a used bookstore somewhere. (They probably have it at Mandarake.)
Most of the stories are on the serious side, lots of dying and sadness. But in a surreal and unexpected way, so it’s not so much about making you sad as it is about thinking about relationships and where they start and end in a slightly disconnected way. In part one of the title story, the beggar (or so it seems) Luka finds himself nursed back to health by the daughter of the richest man in town. After a few oddly existential conversations, she throws herself at his feet, sobbing, and he goes off alone after speechifying about just what her goodwill is really worth. In the second half, we learn how he came to be a beggar in that far away town and surprise, it has to do with someone dying.
Stylistically, I like the second half much better. The lines are simpler and flow more. There’s less of an attempt to bridge the gap to shojo. It’s almost as if the piece devolved as she wrote it. I’m assuming this is because the second chapter is meant to be a memory of Luka’s past, but I kind of wish that the entire story was drawn like this.
I think my favourite story in the collection is “Itoshi no Anjelica”, which starts out on the shojo side (complete with eye sparkle on the title page) and moves quickly into the depressing surreal. Mero collapses on the doorstep of the beautiful Anjelica. She takes him in, listens wide-eyed and sympathetically to the troubles that brought him so far from home. His beloved Jane died and he can’t accept it. He ponders the meaning of a loved one dying and how to go on without that person, while Anjelica listens with her big eyes wide open. And then she leads Mero down into her basement of despair where Jane’s corpse is languishing/rotting, and takes obvious delight in his misery.
What really makes this story work is the way Okada borrows from shojo tropes and combines them with her own style. We get the big, flowing hair as the heroine throws herself into the arms of the hero, the quick-changing eyes—first sparkles then liquid, the dramatic leaning to and away from the hero. But she is not in turmoil about her feelings for this man who showed up on her doorstep in the middle of the night. She’s merely playing with him before she sends him to join his best beloved.
The last story, though, almost undid all the goodwill this volume accumulated with me. Nearly forty pages of a turgid plow through ancient princedom. I tried to get into it since I had enjoyed all the preceding stories so much, but really this last one was just a slog and I barely finished it. Although it followed the thematic arch of loved ones and loss that the rest of the stories did, “Shindeshimatta Tekubi” got oddly speecherrifc and bogged down in familial details. From a thousand or so years ago. I could not get into it. Maybe this is just because I am not really in love with the old school royal family stories, but I think it’s more because Okada got stuck in a weird moralizing rut. Either way, this is the one that didn’t work.
The other thing that didn’t work was the gutters. Whoever laid this thing out was really concerned with saving paper. The inside gutters are so narrow that you generally can’t see the borders of panels on the inside edges, and in the case of the first two stories, so narrow that you have to really crack the book open to see the end of the lines of dialogue. This book is basically a cautionary tale for book designers: Don’t do this. Don’t make your gutters so narrow or your readers will entertain grim fantasies about hunting you down and making you read the final words of each swallowed line.