This is Tomoko Yamashita’s year, my friends. Ten years ago, she made her professional debut as a manga artist, and the powers-that-be are taking advantage of this tidy round number to shove her in our faces in any way possible. Reissuing her old BL, collecting all the bits of ephemera from the many pamphlets and free inserts into the various editions of her books, putting out a book of interviews and conversations she’s had with other BL artists (including brain favourite est em!). There was even an art show (Complete with limited edition goods!) (Yes, I bought them.) (Don’t judge me!) at a weird building that is half grade school, half art center. All of which means that it is a very good time to be a fan in Japan.
But it also means that her latest serialisation—the first volume of which was released at the beginning of the month—get a little lost in all the noise. There’s just so much Yamashita to revel in! Fortunately, bookstores know their business, and they have White Note Pad prominently faced in the new books section to remind us Yamashita fans that she actually has a new book out that we can enjoy while we look back on and celebrate her ten years of keeping us lost in her dreamy worlds.
Worlds that keep getting dreamier. With White Note Pad and her other ongoing series, Night Beyond the Tricornered Window, she is pushing further and further away from the real world into some seriously speculative work. The basic premise of both series is supernatural: Tricornered has Mikado with his ability to see ghosts and Hiyakawa with the ability to send them packing, while Hana and Kine switch bodies in Note Pad. But the sexy ghost hunting of Tricornered is new to me, while body switching just seems tired. There have been so many tales of people switching bodies and learning how good they had it, etc., so I was a bit wary approaching White Note Pad. To the point where I didn’t buy it immediately after it came out, just circled it like a cat checking out a fat baby. But the cover wore down my resistance in the end. Those defiant eyes! The billowing shirt dress! I wanted to know more!
So more: Kine is a 38-year-old man doing manual labour and Hana is a 17-year-old high-school student when for no apparent reason, they both wake up one morning a year ago to an unfamiliar body and a completely foreign life. They don’t realize it’s a body switch, which is interesting to me, like there’s the possibility of a complete break with the sense of self (the story of a novel I read years ago and really liked but vexingly cannot remember the title of now). The story picks up when they happen to run into each other at the office of a fashion magazine, where he (she) is making a delivery, and where she (he) works as a model/editor. He’s kind of a mess, and she feels bad for getting the easy part of the switcheroo (he’s got the mind of a grown-up, plus gets to live with her family and not worry about jobs and things), so she (he) gets him a job at the magazine. Which also allows them to spend a lot of time together and learn how the other used to live before this mysterious thing happened to them.
Interestingly, they don’t spend any time trying to reverse the process or anything. Kine in Hana’s body confesses right off the bat that he has no idea why this happened or how to fix it, and they simply move forward from there. I like this tactic of Yamashita’s since it makes explicit that she’s not interested in that part of the story. She’s not trying to tell a body-swapping story; she’s telling an identity story, and that is something I am very interested in. What is identity without the body and life that shaped it? What happens to that identity when it’s dropped into an entirely unfamiliar situation?
The way each of our protagonists reacts to the switch tells us so much about them as people, whatever body they’re in. Kine in Hana simply accepts what’s happened and gets to work figuring out who he is now, digging through Hana’s journals and personal items so that he can rather seamlessly play her in her own life. But Hana in Kine is crushed by the sudden discovery that she is an older man and is unable to take over his life in any meaningful way.
Yamashita uses a beautiful visual shorthand throughout the book of the waters rising up to show us in a single panel the loss and uncertainty the characters are living through, memories being swallowed up by a relentless tide. The motifs of particular memories of each of the protagonists show up again and again, overlaid onto the characters and the panels, adding unexpected depth to scenes ostensibly about everyday life.
So far, White Note Pad is so much more than a body-switching comedy. Yamashita digs in and asks uncomfortable questions about what it means to be who we think we are. And she does it in her usual effortless style with expressive characters and tight pacing. It’s no wonder we’re celebrating ten years of her work right now. I honestly am excited to see where she takes us in the next ten.