You guys! est em is getting some serious traction over on this side of the ocean. I am seeing displays of her work everywhere, mostly because the second volume of Golondrina just came out, so there’s a lot of promo from IKKI, who are not an insignificant player in the manga industry. But even before that, her work in every BL section I went to was faced prominently, even for titles that have been in print for years.
It’s weird coming to Japan once a year or so. You just see these snapshots of the country and the manga world. Each year I come, I notice more and more est em creeping into the mainstream. Even just three years ago, at most bookstores, I had to poke around in the alphabetical section to find her in her rightful place after “u” but before “o” (We’re dealing with the Japanese version of the alphabet here, where “u” comes before “o” and “e” comes in between). But now, I just walk into my favourite bookstores and five of her titles are prominently displayed near the front of the store.
Interestingly, a lot of these displays are not particularly fussy if a title is BL or mainstream. They throw them all together and let the reader sort it out. I wonder if this isn’t because est em’s BL work has always been on the periphery of the hardcore BL scene, and so now that she is doing more and more josei and seinen work, it’s easier to lump all her work together and let her more mainstream work pull the BL stuff into the mainstream. Either way, I’m fascinated and I’d love to find out if anyone is reading Red Blinds the Foolish because it is next to Golondrina on the shelf now (in an IKKI reissue, which I bought even though I have the original because it came with a special insert by est em and I am a sucker for that stuff even though I have sat down and had coffee with the woman and have books signed by her).
Kuslar came out at the beginning of the month and fortunately, one of those mainstream/BL displays of her work had it front and centre, so I picked it up and added it to the reading list. But they are some fairly serious sexy times included in this one, so anyone grabbing this because they are really into Golondrina might be dismayed by the man-on-man action. Or they might be totally swayed over to man-on-man action by est em’s as-always spot-on depictions of such action.
I read a couple of these stories in onBLUE, a BL magazine that just started up a couple years ago. Images from Kuslar were actually on the cover of the first issue, which is what induced me to buy the thing in the first place. It’s actually pretty good and lately includes work by Aya Ishino, who has been catching my eye with her long limbed style reminiscent of Asumiko Nakamura.
So! Kuslar! It is pretty good. I would read it if I were you. I can’t force you to do anything, of course, but I can glare menacingly and try to develop telepathy in an effort to get you to read this. Six stories set in Turkey, both old and new, and an essay about her trip to Turkey to research the stories in the book.
The first and second stories are set in the way back times, complete with gorgeous costumes and palaces. Also horses and a snake. I feel like she has really hit her stride with this volume, in terms of balancing the art. There is a real feel of decadence in many panels, the palaces, the life of the sultan, but often that decadence is evoked with a single panel of a wrinkled bedsheet.
But her minimalist style always shines through to give her characters the spotlight. It is still always about the people involved, even if they do live in palaces. And it’s this that you connect with as a reader. I mean, not many of us are walking around in turbans and real harem pants. But when the lovers in “Kus” are unjustly torn apart, you feel that sadness. Because you know these people that she has put on the page.
She’s also stretching art-wise in this volume, trying more abstract panels, using metaphorical images instead of her generally literal style. And it works for me. When the lovers in “Kus” have their moment, the legs floating above the bird cage connect to a plot point but also to deeper themes and ideas of freedom that she explores in other stories as well.
Overall, though, this is one sad book. You might want to save it for an evening when you are feeling particularly lonely and winsome, so that you can amplify that effect and really develop a powerful longing for something more. “Karinca” basically broke my heart with its depictions of two young lovers trapped in family situations they can’t escape. The world they live in and the obligations they feel they have keep them from running away together, and with tense domestic violence juxtaposed with moments of bliss the pair feel together, est em’s tense, wordless panels easily evoke all the longing and regret they feel.
As a bonus, there is a previously unpublished story, a sequel of sorts to one story in the book. And it is done in watercolours! So pretty! Reading this story made me wish that est em had gallery shows, so that I could admire the extra warmth watercolours bring to her loose lines. It is honestly the perfect fit. So, um, well done, est em! (But really, were you expecting me to say anything else?)