I struggled with this book. Not so much with the actual content as with simply buying it. I was really attracted to the art, but the title seriously put me off. Given how women in Japan are stuck with a seventies version of feminism even now, I had visions of it being some terrible portrayal of sex workers, and I wasn’t sure I really wanted to stoke that kind of anger in myself. So I passed it over time and time again at the bookstore, even though it’s published by Beam Comix, who put out a lot of stuff I like, including the “magazine for comic freaks”. Also, that cover is seriously so enticing. How did I keep resisting it?
And then one day, I was in the bookstore, not too long before my return to Canada, and there it was again, like it had been so many visits before. But this time, I told myself that I could throw six hundred yen away on it to satisfy my curiosity. Even if I only proved to myself that the book was a terrible representation of sex workers that should be buried in a deep hole never to be seen again, at least I would stop wondering about it. You can guess where this story is going, right? We’ve been hanging out here for long enough to know that my brain and I would never devote hundreds of words to eviscerating a book, right?
Yes, I loved it. And I have learned a lesson about judging a book by its title. Judging by cover: Totally okay. Judging by title: Simmer down, sister. Life is all about learning, friends.
Night Worker collects two stories, “Like a Slight Fever”, which takes up most of the book, and the titular “Night Worker”, a short story at the end. The first story follows Nao in her strange friendship with the beautiful and dangerous Mifuyu when they are at university together. Mifuyu has not one, but two lovers: famous writer and professor Okiyama, and fellow student Yoshiaki. Nao happens to be a huge fan of Okiyama and interested in writing herself, so Mifuyu arranges a meeting between them. The story starts with Mifuyu proposing this meeting, and Nao’s narration notes ominously, “Why didn’t I just run? There was still time at that moment. I could have saved myself if only I’d told her ‘I can’t follow you.’” So right from the start, you know that things are not going to go especially well. Or at least not in the direction Nao wants.
This friendship with Mifuyu and the things that happen between them and these two lovers (and yes, some of it is R18), change how Nao behaves and navigates the world until she finds herself wondering how she got to be this way. It’s a fascinating story of a young woman exploring her limits and realizing that she maybe doesn’t have any. And feeling the social pushback of that. The relationship between Nao and Mifuyu is especially wrought. They push and pull against each other, although in the end, Mifuyu is always in charge. I could have read an entire series about this hypnotic push-pull, so I was a bit sad to only get a hundred and thirty pages of it. Which is not to say the story feels incomplete. Yamaji brings it to a solid, if somewhat predictable, conclusion. As an artist, she’s been around for a while (even if I am only just discovering her), so that is really no surprise.
“Night Worker” is similarly solid, the tale of a woman who works as a waitress in a strip club, striking up a friendship with the new dancer at the same time as her former abuser shows up in that very club. Her talks and relationship with the new dancer contrast nicely with her obsessive thinking about her former abuser, and with her own comfortable life living with her psychiatrist boyfriend.
And ugh, the art. It haunts me. The cleanest lines I’ve ever seen but with such expression! Such movement, such sensuality. But even with that movement, there’s a frozen quality to the images on the page, like each panel is an awkward snapshot, a speaking mouth caught half-open, a sidelong glance forever immortalized. There’s a formalism in these pages too, an elaborate ritualistic stiffness between characters. Honestly, it’s like a Hal Hartley film to me, full of emotion that is carefully and deliberately paced, punctuated with scheduled puffs off a cigarette.
So no, Night Worker is not the awful take on sex workers that I feared. It’s an intense glimpse into the lives of two young women and their sexuality that is totally respectful and honest. Just writing about it now, I want to read it again. According to the intertubes, Yamaji often writes about sexuality, and queer sexuality in particular, so it is really a mystery to me how she managed to stay out of my sights for so very long. Having devoured Night Worker, I’m ready to order everything else she’s ever written and make up for that, though.