I learned a few things while I was in Japan this year: That it is really cheap to rent a car in Okinawa, but the rental car GPS will lie to you. That a certain cafe in Nishi Shinjuku is the best place in all the land to get serious work done. That when people warn you that Kansai is really cold in the winter, they aren’t kidding and you should bring some gloves and a hat. And that I hadn’t read Kiriko Nananan, although I was sure I had. So sure in fact that when she came up in conversation with my Kansai-based friends (who endured the chill so much better than Canadian me), I chatted away like I knew anything about her. Because I was sure I did. Her stark blacks and whites, deceptively simple lines, and josei stories about young lovers seemed so familiar to me.
But back in my favourite Tokyo bookstore, I realized that I had only ever been exposed to Nananan in the context of other artists, other discussions. I had never actually sat myself down and read one of her books. Maybe because I always thought that I had. Or maybe because I had somehow convinced myself that she wasn’t one of those artists I had to read; the bits and bits I had seen were enough. But obviously I was deluding myself, because this book was fascinating from start to finish. It’s been a while since I’ve had the pleasure of reading an artist with such a personal, polished style bringing such insight to everyday-type moments.
Oddly enough, the artist I kept coming back to in my mind while reading Itaitashii Love is Saho Tono. Although their styles are really very different, with Tono favouring a loose, scribbly line and Nananan almost military in her precision, and the subject matter they deal with also very different, there’s something about their minimalism that joins them together in my head. Both tend to avoid backgrounds entirely to focus on the characters in the frames. And both have an interesting way of tackling their panels, often framing things from unexpected angles, forcing you to see the story and the characters in a new light. They each have something of the same distant warmth, like they care about these characters and these stories, but they are somehow stepping back to let you, the reader, in. The most significant connection between the two, however, might be the way each tiny story feels like a poem.
As in Tono’s Twinkle, the stories in Itaitashii Love are short, brief flashes into the lives of the protagonists, most of whom are women, but guys get a starring role in a few of the tales. And as the title of the collection (which translates roughly as “painful love”) suggests, these are stories about love and lovers. Mostly lovers, less love. The book is filled with people in their early twenties figuring out relationships and, to some extent, life. Which sounds like a big yawn of an exercise into navel gazing, but Nananan manages to pick key moments that often read like manga poetry, so that these stories of twenty-somethings reveal greater human loves and truths. And now that sounds like a whole lot for a manga collection to shoulder, but there really is beauty in these pages.
The title story alone I could read for days and days and never get tired of it. While having sex with her boyfriend, a young woman remembers cheating on him with someone who blindfolded her and tied her up, and how much she liked that. She then tries to get the boyfriend to “be mean” to her. Like many of the pieces in this collection, this plays out in panels empty of dialogue with close-ups of faces and body parts, interspersed with completely black panels containing inner monologues in white type. The style brings a really contemplative feel to the whole thing.
A few of the stories are less poem-like and more story-like, the somewhat hilarious “Life Planning” being one of them. Broken up into three sections, “Life Planning” focusses first on Chikada, who works a shitty retail job, but mostly lives off his live-in girlfriend, who makes a killing off of phone sex work. He is constantly skipping work because the girlfriend wants him to go and do things with her, always her treat. But one day when he gets dressed down by his boss, his co-worker Sawa takes him in the back and offers to have sex with him if he will just show up for work and not get fired. These kinds of weird, abrupt offers of sex-related favours come up more than once in Itaitashii Love and I’m assuming outbursts like this are related to the confession culture prevalent in dating in Japan. Because otherwise, what?? Stay at this job and I’ll have sex with you? It is just too abrupt and weird.
Chikada seems to think so too, but he has sex with her anyway. And then doesn’t show up to work the next day because his girlfriend wants to hang out. So the next part of “Life Planning” is Sawa’s story of the aftermath. She wants so badly to be with Chikada that she nicks his resume from the office to find out his address and goes to his house. Where she gets totally shitfaced. Hilarity ensues, leading naturally to part three, the girlfriend’s story. She never gets a name; the title of her chapter is simply “Girlfriend” and things come to a frustrating climax in it. But it’s frustrating precisely because of its naturalness. Of course, things would turn out like that. And you are left shaking your head, like Girlfriend’s best friend off on the sidelines.
I cannot get enough of Nananan’s blacks and whites. Everything is all stark contrasts, which works so well with the muddy emotions clouding all these pages. Her thick, precise lines are so not the norm in manga, amply demonstrated by one story which is a manga in a manga. The manga the character is reading is full of the usual soft lines and flowing hair of shojo and josei manga, although still with Nananan’s blacks and whites, providing another nice contrast when you turn the page and are back in Nananan’s harsher take on reality. Sometimes, you want a harsher take on reality.