You are probably rolling your eyes at this point and muttering to yourself, “More est em? Come on!” And then the person in the next cubicle (I assume you are reading this at work, trying to just get to five o’clock without killing anyone in your office, but that guy who keeps breathing through his mouth while he scarfs down stinky shrimp chips is making that a very hard task indeed) adds “constantly talks to herself” to the list of things she is going to bring up when she talks to the boss about being moved far away from you. I certainly don’t mean to contribute to intra-office tensions, but you can’t blame me for continuing to devour her work when it is so consistently interesting and challenging.
When so many manga artists are focussed on the typical manga stories set in high schools, companies, and other institutions in Japan, est em is one of the artists always reaching outside the familiar and painting new worlds for her readers. Right from her first book Seduce Me After the Show, she’s been setting her stories all over the world in all kinds of worlds. And now she’s taking a serious look at bullfighting in Spain and it may be the most amazing thing she’s ever done. Yes, I know I am prone to hyperbole, but no, I think I am not exaggerating here.
To be honest, I was reluctant to read this one. I can’t really pin down why, but even though I bought Volume One days after I arrived in Japan the first week of October, I didn’t actually read it until I got on a plane back to Canada at the beginning of December. Part of my reluctance was that I knew this was a book about bullfighting and being a vegetarian and a firm believer in animal rights, I wasn’t sure I could actually enjoy a series about animals being killed for sport, even if it was written by one of my favourite artists. And maybe I was also hesitant because unlike her previous work which has fallen in the BL and ladies’ categories, Golondrina, serialized in a seinen magazine, is aimed at a male audience and I had my doubt about how her approach to manga would translate to that arena.
But of course, I should have known. I have had doubts before and yet est em always manages to dispel them. Because whatever the audience, the woman knows how to tell a story. And how to create real, compelling characters. With Golondrina, she’s finally being given the space to tell a long-form story and it’s a story she’s been itching to tell. At least, that’s what she told me when I interviewed her a couple of weeks ago (you’ll get to read it, don’t worry), but really, it shows in the book itself.
Chika, a girl whose name means “girl” in Spanish, is deeply and desperately in love with Maria. And then Maria goes and gets knocked up by a guy. Chika feels she’s can’t live without Maria, so she stands on the highway in the pouring rain, hoping some poor driver will run her down and end her misery. But (un?)luckily for her, one such car stops short of hitting her, and its driver, Antonio, packs her into the back seat and takes her home, with a promise to think about killing her like she is pleading for him to do, thinking she is a he. (And you oyaji BL fans, older hot guy Antonio is your gift from est em. Be thankful.)
Turns out Antonio is a something like a matador manager. Or at least he used to be. He hasn’t had a matador for a while now, due of course to tragedy striking the last and greatest of his matadors. He brought Chika home thinking to make a bullfighter out of her, but changes his mind once he realizes she’s a girl. But Chika’s decided something big. She will become a matador and die in the corrida in front of Maria.
For a seinen manga, there is some seriously empowering and bold lady stuff in this series. Like when Antonio takes Chika (who has never seen a bullfight before) to the corrida, she runs out when the bull is killed. He follows her and tells her she’ll never kill a bull, thinking she couldn’t stomach the moment of slaughter. But she is gloriously defiant: “Did you think that because I’m a woman, I’d get all scared or something if you showed me some blood?” She then shoves her hand down her pants and pulls it out, fingertips dipped in blood. “Don’t insult me. I’m more than used to seeing blood.”
It’s also a series filled with guys. I’m pretty sure this is because est em likes drawing guys and because bullfighting is kind of a guys’ world for the most part (although there are female matadors). In addition to Antonio, there is Sechu (I have no idea if this is the right English spelling), Chika’s nightlife-loving DJ roommate, and Vincente, a third-generation bullfighter working to become a full-fledged torero. But it’s funny how a seinen series can so closely resemble a BL series. I mean, if Chika were a guy, you’d have all the makings of a seriously great BL love triangle/square.
The drawings making this story happen are some of the strongest I’ve seen from est em. I actually felt a little overwhelmed while reading this on the plane (admittedly, that could’ve been because I was on the plane) . There’s a firmness, a decisiveness to her linework that I haven’t really seen before, and a real power in many scenes. And of course, her depictions of matadors are gorgeous and surprisingly detailed. But her portrayals of the bulls are actually fairly sympathetic, and even in the bloody scenes of the bullfighting finales, there is an unexpected and gentle sadness.
So basically, I am sitting here waiting for Volume Three. Please don’t take any holidays for a while, est em.