Is it just me or is Takako Shimura insanely prolific? Although I’ve only ever really followed her bigger series Wandering Son and Sweet Blue Flowers, I feel like I’m always coming across a new one-off tanko or a short story in some magazine or another. I follow her on Twitter too, and it seems like every other day, she is announcing some new project or retweeting reactions to another (lately, those reactions have been about her new art book, which is drool-worthy). And I know that in the very competitive, high-pressure world of Japanese manga, you pretty much have to work all the time if you want to continue to earn your living drawing comics while not being Rumiko Takahashi. But seriously! Does Shimura even sleep?
Right now, her big serialization is Musume no Iede, which looks lovely, and I have no doubt I’ll get around to reading it one of these days. But in my last big order of books from Japan (big because at the time, I was not expecting to be in Japan until November, but it turns out I’ll be there in August now, so I have a lot of books to devour in the suddenly short time before I leave), I got a recent one-shot by Shimura, Wagamama Chie-chan. And it is both very different from and so much in the same vein as her other non-BL work.
Same vein stuff includes school girl coming of age and coming to an understanding of herself and her sexuality, complete with girlfriend. Different parts include mystery novel vibe, twists and reveals, ghosts and dead people. All of which makes for an interesting combination and something I’ve never seen from Shimura before. We first meet Saho through a letter to (what I assume is) her hip, young aunt Nanae. Nanae is pleased to get the letter from (what I assume is) her favourite niece and sits down with a cup of tea to read it. It’s the usual teenage girl stuff—I’ll be starting junior high soon, I don’t see my friends from elementary school too often—until the end when she notes she’s made friends with a dead girl named Chie.
Segue to Saho at home, being fussed over by her mom who is over the moon that Saho decided to go to the junior high school she went to. Family tradition! Trailing behind Saho is the aforementioned Chie, all dead eyes, school uniform, and neat braids. No one can see Chie except Saho, and her mom keeps catching her talking to someone who isn’t there. Saho finally spills the beans about Chie, shocking both her mother and father, who tell her that she had a twin sister named Chie. Dum dum dummmmm!
All of this is in the first chapter, and I will keep further plot details to myself since the reveals in this one are a pleasure to experience, and I wouldn’t want to take that away from anyone. But after a bit of back and forth in the early chapters about who is what, the story settles down into something more down-to-earth, less ghosts-are-my-best-friends and more coping with the loss of family members. In a way that is human and understandable and relatable, of course, because this is Shimura and she seems to have some kind of hotline to the essence of the human experience. People blame themselves, try to overcompensate, go down paths not their own out of a kind of survivor’s guilt. The initial fantastical elements of the story make the tough love that comes later an easier pill to swallow.
And our schoolgirl grows up. She figures out some things about herself through choices both bad and good. I particularly like the contrast between her male and female romantic partners. She treats the guy as a kind of transaction, while having all the sweet, shy, awkward moments with the girl, including a first kiss that is so adorable, and I’m not embarrassed to say I did swoon. Along with many other feels. Like I said, this is Shimura. She knows how to pluck at the heart strings of her readers.
If you’re already a reader of her work, then you will be more than satisfied with both the story and the art and the interplay thereof. Shimura’s soft curves and easy lines are out in full force here. But her backgrounds are a bit more detailed than usual, with a little more variety than the school-home trajectory you often see in her work. She uses some clear visual markers to signify what is fantasy and what is reality in a way you don’t really understand until you make it through all the twists and turns. Even so, you notice it right away. Sort of like that Sesame Street song, “One of These Things is Not Like the Others.”
As a one-shot, this is a pretty solid volume. Intriguing story that’s not entirely linear nor entirely real which comes to an ending that, while not necessarily happy, is definitely honest. It’s true to the characters Shimura has created and to everything in the story that comes before it. And it’s true to life, to how things actually play out, to how they actually feel. Because Shimura is magic?? Seriously, how does she so clearly and honestly express all these feelings we feel in a way that makes us feel them all over again? I know this is a thing that fiction can do, and it is a big reason why I love fiction, the way it can make us empathize with people we are not and hopefully make us kinder, more understanding people in the real world. But Shimura is some kind of empathy master. I want to go to the dojo she trained at.