Before I knew that I would be leaving for Japan basically two months earlier than my expected annual pilgrimage, I put in an order for enough manga to keep me going until November. Some of this was the latest volumes in series I follow, like ACCA (getting complicated!) and I Am a Hero (tenterhooks and sadness!), some of it was directly work-related (still a secret!), and some of it was just random authors I like. What I didn’t realize at the time I placed the order was that the majority of the random author section was taken up by Fumiko Fumi. It’s like after reading Sakikusa no Saku Goro, I declared to myself that I was all in with this artist and let my subconscious take over. I’m not exactly complaining about this, since I really am all in with this artist. But so many books in a row by the same artist in a row and all the thematic stuff starts to run together.
Or so it would with any other author. But Fumiko Fumi apparently likes to shake things up from book to book. One volume is her debut collection of yon-koma, another is a shojo one-shot, and yet another—the focus of our interest today—is a collection of loosely connected stories speculating on the nature of death and rebirth and destiny. Because of course.
Essentially, someone named Ebi (or Ebina in the case of the pillar story) is in love with and yet also hates someone named Kai. They are mean and kind to each other in various time periods/lives. Sometimes, they are aware of those other lives and the many other times they have come together, other times they are not not. Crabs feature prominently in pretty much every story, which is maybe the only thing that makes sense, given the title; Kani means crab. And Ebi means shrimp and Kai means shellfish, so I have been wracking my brains as to the various meanings of these sea creatures and what significance they lend to this cyclical story. The internet tells me that crabs are associated with rebirth and reincarnation because of the way they shed their shells for new ones, and that definitely fits in with this collection.
But a lot of tales of rebirth will have the reborn learning from their pasts or at least moving onto new presents, but Fumi keeps her protagonist squarely in the same place, like they still haven’t learned whatever karmic lessons they’re meant to. Ebi is inexplicably drawn to Kai in the present as a Buddhist nun attending the funeral of Kai’s father, who she had an affair with in high school solely to hurt Kai, or as a genderless being living with Kai in a dome generated by a giant crab in a completely unpopulated world, or as the child of god, cursed and blessed and doomed to sacrifice herself for the village she was born into where Kai is the chief’s son who falls in love with her. The pair are drawn to each other or forced together in every chapter of this looping and loose tale, only to be torn apart by outside forces or their own internal conflict. They can never be happy together, but neither can they ever get away from each other, even as they sometimes look backwards or forwards and see this loop they are caught in.
Fumi takes advantage of this format to try out a number of art styles to match the details of the particular part of this loop she is depicting. So the tale of two Catholic nuns who fall in love with each other dips into the world of shojo, complete with sparkling eyes and flower-ringed panels, while Kai the old-timey Japanese fisherman who comes across Ebi the disembodied head on the beach tips its hat to old school manga classics like Kamui while still retaining Fumi’s own rounded soft style to lend an extra air of dreaminess to the whole thing.
As you may have already noticed, Fumi’s not just playing around with the crab’s rebirth bit, but also gender and the impact it has on relationships. Maybe half of the stories feature a hetero pairing of Kai and Ebi, but one removes gender from the equation entirely, allowing them to live in paradise together until one of them remembers all their past lives and, crucially, the fact that they were once gendered. One relationship is between an old man Kai who builds a robot Ebi and lives in a fantasy world with it, ignoring and destroying his real world relationships to die in its arms. At one point, one of the iterations of these characters notes that if there was no gender, they could be together like this forever.
In a truly circular, crab-like fashion, the book ends where it began with Ebina and Kai from the first chapter, after what is maybe my favourite chapter in which a tribal sacrifice Ebi comes to understand the cyclical nature of her relationship with Kai. I have the new edition (the stories were first published in 2012), which includes a bonus chapter featuring the origins of the pillar story’s Ebina and her affair with Kai’s father, but I felt like I would have preferred to read the first edition of this book without this tacked on explanatory note. The circle of this story is really complete without it. Although I did very much enjoy the leering creeper she portrays Kai’s dad to be.