It’s a safe bet to say that if something’s been published by Ohta, I’ll at least pick it up and take a look. After all, they publish the only manga magazine I read and I’ve written about at least half a dozen of their titles here. And when I was in Sapporo (surprise Sapporo!) a few weeks ago, I was delighted to discover an entire Ohta section in the manga department of this enormous bookstore I stumbled across. A delight I do not feel when I encounter any other publisher’s section (except maybe Beam. They do good work too). Being in Sapporo, I felt like I should get something Sapporo-ish or at least Hokkaido-related to read on the plane back to Tokyo, but that Ohta section proved too much for my brain to resist and I grabbed Kuchibiru to Garnet, which had only just been released that week.
Like many other Ohta titles I’ve talked about, I was half following this in Erotics f, and the chapters I read were intriguing enough to get me to pick up the book sitting there in the Ohta section. I also liked Uno’s contribution to the Dame BL anthology, so I was willing to drop my hard-earned manga yen on her new book, especially since it is a one-shot so no big commitment to any new series. (I am already reading too many series and I need one of them to end now, so I can divert my reading time to the many other books waiting patiently to be read.) Although Kuchibiru could easily have been stretched out into a few more volumes, I did appreciate the compactness of the story and the lack of fluffy filler that occasionally graces the pages of serialized manga.
There are plenty of places for that kind of filler, given the nature of the story. Hiro loses his wife not long after their daughter, Shinobu, is born and the story opens when Shinobu is in elementary school. They have a cute, unusual relationship, with Shinobu seemingly the more grown-up of the two as she wakes Hiro so that he’s not late for his appointment with an important client. She takes care of the shopping, helps Hiro cook, and generally keeps him on track. She also calls him “Hiro-kun” and he calls her “Shinobu-san”, a really subtle way of marking their relationship as not your average father-daughter deal.
One day, Shinobu is feeling sick and she ends up going to the pharmacy around the corner from the salon where Hiro works as a hairdresser, where she camps out until Hiro’s done work, much to the shock and dismay of the young pharmacist, Yoshino. She’s shocked at the casual and weird nature of the father-daughter relationship and thinks Hiro needs to shape the hell up. She is also carrying her own emotional baggage around, of course, which shapes the way she views Hiro and Shinobu. She ends up becoming friends with Shinobu in a way, but tries to have as little to do with Hiro as possible.
The story is fairly sweet and simple, and you can see where things are going, but I like the subtle flips to the usual script for this kind of story that Uno manages. The flaky, artistic type working as a hairdresser is the guy, while the serious, sensible, science-y type is the girl. Both parties have absolutely no interest in getting involved with each other, and although their initial connection is the kid, she’s actually not the reason Hiro and Yoshino spend more time with each other. And the grand misunderstanding that shows up in practically all love stories is not some hard-to-believe mishap between the two of them, but a misunderstanding on the part of Shinobu and Hiro’s mother-in-law. The relationship between Hiro and Shinobu is generally front and centre, and I enjoyed seeing the dynamic between the two of them change as they tried to confront their feelings about Yoshino and Shinobu’s dead mother.
The rounded art style Uno has is something I feel like I’m seeing a lot of, reminiscent of people like Takako Shimura and Fumiko Fumi, all soft lines and curves. And it’s winning me over. Although I tend to prefer something more angular, with a little more of an edge, I do love the way Uno captures the flop of Shinobu’s hair as she bounces around the kitchen with a few curved strokes. She gets a lot of movement in these static images. She also makes good use of different angles for the panels to reflect the emotions of the characters or an uncertainty in the situation. But what really won me over art-wise is the fact that everyone is just so damned cute. All of them! Adorable!
This is one of those books you should read after a terrible and overly long commute on a cram-jammed Tokyo commuter line full of old salarymen who have never come within spitting distance of a toothbrush or after you go somewhere like the Peace Memorial Museum in Okinawa and become convinced that human beings are essentially evil. (Seriously. Saddest place on earth.) It’s a gentle, sweet but not saccharine story that shows you that maybe people are not all totally jerks. Maybe.