Years ago, before I ended up translating comics for a living, I was a teacher at this girls’ high school, a middle-of-the-road kind of school. So the girls I taught were expected to go onto university, but not necessarily a great university, and they would probably just find a husband there and never bother going into the workforce. They were nice and well behaved, even if not all of them understood the meaning of the word “plagiarism”, and I didn’t have to deal with all the crap the Japanese teachers did because I was a white girl and thus, could not actually be held seriously responsible for the well-being of my students. So basically, it was an easy job.
And I met this woman there who worked in the office, and we have been friends ever since. We are very different in a lot of ways, the most notable of which is that she does not read manga, while I (as you may have guessed from reading these pages) devour it. But she is extremely thoughtful and intelligent and amazing in general, so when she declared with some urgency that she needed to show me an author, I followed her without hesitation to the nearest bookstore. She would never lead me astray. The author was Tomoko Yamashita, and that was my first encounter with her.
It’s weird when a non-comics friend recommends a comic to me. I can’t help but analyze the pages for those elements that won the friend over. So the first time I read Yamashita, I was pouring over the pages, scouring them for what my friend had found so appealing that she couldn’t just tell me the artist’s name, but had to drag me to a bookstore before our dinner date to actually show me the books by this artist. I mean, that is a powerful spell Yamashita cast there.
But in all the years I’ve spent since reading Yamashita’s work, I’ve never been able to put my finger on it. I mean, yes, her art is lovely, minimal, thin lines, beautiful shadows. And yes, her character have such expressive, unique faces; supple bodies that move in unexpectedly real ways. And yes, her stories are always probing the human condition, the relationships we build with lovers, friends, strangers. It was only reading Mirror Ball that I realized the spell she casts is her versatility, her ability to be inside so many different heads and make all those stories feel real and compelling.
Mirror Ball collects eight stories of very different natures originally published between 2008 and 2011. “Utsukushi Mori” is told from the perspective of a high school boy crushing out on his beautiful art teacher, constantly imagining her naked. “Don’t Trust Over Teen” has a sullen 16-year-old hanging out with her friends and trying to figure out this thing called love when her best friend starts dating a much older man. In “Blue”, a successful single woman begrudgingly lets the son of some distant relative stay with her for a couple weeks. “Ebony Olive” is three female friends getting together for dinner every so often to talk about work and love and the developments in the love life of one of them in particular.
Takehira, the narrator of “Itsuka Anata no Fushigina Oppai” is obsessed with his childhood friend’s breasts. The story starts with a full colour page (in the middle of the book) of him leering at her breasts as she holds her newly born daughter to her chest. In the first dialogue box, he informs us that the woman he has loved for so long is a floozie. She always sleeps with lowlifes who are no good for her and lets them touch those boobs, but never him. He is outraged that he has been there, hanging out with her since they were kids, but she has never once let him touch those boobs, even though she lets all those assholes touch them. It’s such an entitled “Nice Guy” tale, and Yamashita tells it unfiltered. She simply portrays Takehira as he is, helpful friend to the owner of the boobs, but lets us see how he seethes inside, how he imagines the breasts of everyone around him, even the future boobs of the newborn girl.
The titular “Mirror Ball Flashing Magic”, though, is the standout story in the collection for me, the one where all of Yamashita’s talents come together in an unexpectedly stellar way, if only for the very jaw-droppingly perfect rewind scene a couple pages in. I could seriously stare at this all day long. Ma-kun is getting berated by Saya for neglecting her, a fight they’ve had many times before, and we get to see it all from inside the his head. He looks tired, and he’s convinced he’s had enough. And then! He feels something brush the top of his head, and a mirror ball smashes into Saya’s head. As he reaches out to grab her and stop her fall, something inside of him shifts. Part two of the story shows us another couple affected by the mirror ball, this time an older woman and a junior high school boy. In part three, a wife is done with this sexless marriage and lays into her husband when the mirror ball whizzes past and changes everything. And then finally, in the last part of the story, the origins of the mirror ball itself. And in just thirty-two pages, we get eight couples, four relationships, and all the baggage that comes with that. The relationships are all so different, but so fully formed under Yamashita’s pen and pulled together by the bizarre common element of a mirror ball.
This is the spell Yamashita casts. She throws a mirror ball out the window and hits four couples with real stories to tell. In so few pages, she manages to make her readers care about so many different people in such different places in their lives. She opens a door to the real world and lets us take a peek through someone else’s eyes. So she really is magic, basically.