By the time you are reading this, I am busy making friends with some cats on an island in sweaty, summery Japan, hopefully with a cheap, trashy Chu-Hi in hand. But while I am writing it, I am in full panic mode, scribbling notes to myself about things I need to do before I leave and piling random foodies and gifts (okay, mostly quinoa for me) on top of a suitcase to be packed in theory in a thoughtful, careful manner several days before I leave, but in reality, to be crammed together the night before I set out on my journey as I weep at all the things I still need to do before getting on the plane. I am not the best traveller, you guys.
But if there’s anything that will distract me in times of panic, it’s ridiculous puns and in-jokes that are funny to no one but me. Which is of course why I could not stop myself from tweeting the chapter end pages in Nobara as I read it. Each one features the young girl of the cover, Mone, in scene with one character or another from the main story, “Nobara”, or one of the other two shorter stories accompanying it in this volume, “Mimi-kun” or “Lullaby of Birdland”. That in and of itself is not particularly funny; in fact, it’s more adorable than anything. If it weren’t for the caption! I don’t know if Kumota speaks English and so chose that caption deliberately, but I am going to pretend that she does and did (even as I highly doubt that this is the case).
“Nobara for you”—The moment I saw the first end page, I was picturing this little girl strangling innocents to keep the world from reading gay manga. (For those of you not following the Japanese/English crossover pun, the title of the series “nobara” means wild rose, but “bara” is a [mostly] English [now] term for gay manga, so you could easily read this [if you were so inclined, as I am] as “no gay manga for you”.) And I love this image so much that even if the rest of the book had been a total wash, I still would have been glad I took the time to read the thing. And yes, I tweeted my interpretation of events, to the delight of basically no one other than me. But how I delighted in it!
Fortunately, the book is by Haruko Kumota, Brain favourite, and thus essentially guaranteed to please this brain at least. Nobara is an earlier work, first released in 2010, and you can see Kumota still finding her feet, working to get the balance of silly and smutty and heart-wrenching right. But if you’ve enjoyed anything else she’s done, you’re going to like the three stories in Nobara.
The titular tale is told in three chapters, plus a bonus chapter that gives us a peek into how things play out after the main story is over. Take runs the family restaurant after his parents die, together with his grandmother, who he also lives with. The older Kanda works for them, the perfect job for him now that he is raising his daughter by himself and needs more flexible hours than the office job he used to have. You already see where this is going, right? Yeah, there are no surprises in this BL story. And that’s not a complaint. Kumota excels at what are essentially wish fulfillment stories. The thing that keeps me reading Itoshi no Nekokke is not plot twists and drama, but actually the total lack thereof. I want to read about Kei and Mii and how they love each other. Likewise, “Nobara” brings Take and Kanda together, and that alone is charming and delightful.
Naturally, they face hurdles in getting together. Kanda’s wife stops by the restaurant with divorce papers and reveals to Take that the reason for the divorce is that Kanda told her he was gay, and she just totally cannot handle it. Which leaves Take to stew in his growing feelings for his older subordinate until things finally come to a head. But not anything insurmountable. Because in Kumota’s world, idealized love conquers all. And it is wonderful.
Similarly, “Mimi-kun” and “Lullaby” are equally idealized, albeit in different ways. Mimi finally arrives at her twentieth birthday, meaning she can now get the surgery she has dreamt about for so long and become the woman she truly is. Except she falls in love with Kaoru, who totally cannot get it up for a woman. And so Mimi must make a choice. I did not love this choice. And I don’t think it’s a story Kumota would write now (although I could be projecting what I want her to think). I feel/hope Kumota is a little more sensitive to trans issues and identities these days, as I hope we all are. If I had read this when it first came out in 2010, maybe I wouldn’t have flinched so viscerally. But the casual way she has Mimi abandon the idea of transitioning was pretty awful, even for a lighthearted BL romp. Mimi herself states that she has been dreaming of her twentieth birthday ever since she can remember, the day when she is finally able to physically become the woman she has always been. And then she just tosses that aside because the guy she likes only likes dudes? It is a hard pill to swallow, and it feels seriously dismissive of trans people and their actual, real desires.
“Lullaby” does not present nearly this level of internal conflict. A lonely half-Japanese, half-not doctor heads over to an unspecified country (my gut says Austria or Germany), the place of his mother’s birth, on a journey to find himself of sorts, and ends up finding Bird, a gay hustler and thief, who he falls in love with. Like the other stories in this volume, it presents just the right level of conflict before heading straight into wish fulfillment town. An interesting twist is that our friend the doctor is actually Christian, a minority faith in Japanese society, and this influences his views on getting down with another guy, although not so much that it impedes the story, of course.
Although these stories were all charming in their own way, they did feel a bit empty, like Kumota was hitting beats that needed to be hit. There’s a formulaicness on display here that while perhaps present in her later work, is not so obvious. As I noted earlier, it feels like she is still finding her footing in the world of BL. Art-wise, she seems to still be developing her delightful nose puff of satisfaction/horniness, so clearly we are in the early stages of her work. But if you are looking for a warm and satisfying BL fix, you could definitely do a lot worse. And if you are looking for the best Japanese/English caption to pun around with, you will never find anything better than “no bara for you”.