It comes as a surprise to exactly no one that I am a pretty big fan of Akino Kondoh’s work. And not just her manga, but also her more art-farty stuff like her Kiya Kiya animation and series of drawings and paintings. I’ve been lucky enough to translate two pieces by her for Words Without Borders, and I will rattle on and on to anyone even remotely connected with the world of comics publishing about why they should publish her work already. For instance, not only is she super talented but she also lives in New York and speaks English, making her far more accessible for promotion duties like comics festivals than your average Japanese manga artist. But her work has languished in the realm of “alt-manga,” a land where Western publishers fear to tread. What to do with comics where buttons turn into bugs?! There’s no market for that, they say. (But there is, I argue. I am that market. I will buy all the comics and force them on my friends if that’s what it takes.)
So I am pleased that Kondoh is helping me out in my mission to get her books published in English by drawing what is possibly her most mainstream and accessible work yet, A-ko-san no Koibito. It’s josei! We all want to publish more josei, right?! Ladies got to represent! It’s published in Comic Beam, a step closer to actual mainstream manga than magazines like AX where she was previously published! It’s two books going on three, which means it’s popular enough with the readers for the magazine to keep it going! Come on, Western publishers, I don’t know what else this woman has to do to get you to publish her books in English.
But however accessible the hook of this series might be—“A-ko has two lovers!” the cover announces as if scandalized—it is still very much Kondoh’s style, full of weird details, quiet moments, and random coincidences. Her line work is as expressive as ever, but while some panels, especially ones where A-ko is having an emotional moment of some kind, maintain the more minimalist look of New York De Kangaechu, others are busier, full of crowds bustling through train stations, street scenes with shoppers, detailed cafe visits with friends and frenemies. Everyone sort of looks like they have pipe cleaners instead of bones encased in their flesh and clothing, so there’s hardly an angle to be seen. And you know I love the fluidity of these round lines, the movement they hide.
Kondoh also gets seriously cartoon-y from time to time, in the best exaggerated reactions. I only wish my hair would jump up around my head in waves while my teeth became a half-formed zig-zag between my lips when I was freaked out about something. Her usual stark contrast between black and white also fills the pages of A-ko, and not a scratch of tone is anywhere to be found. She shades and cross-hatches and draws all the lines of all the patterns and shadows, creating an extra bit of intimacy with the reader. From her hand to our eyes.
The story is more than just a bad “I made two dates for the same night” episode of a sitcom (or an Archie comic). The cover may insist that A-ko has two boyfriends, but really what 29-year-old A-ko has is an ex in Japan, A-taro, who thinks he still has a chance when she moves back to Japan from three years in New York, and a boyfriend in New York, A-kun, who isn’t quite sure where he stands with her now that she’s left the US. And A-ko is right there in the middle, pretty sure she doesn’t want A-taro and annoyed with him reinserting himself into her life, but not so sure about A-kun and where she wants him to be in her life. As the story unfolds, we get flashbacks from before she left Japan when she and A-taro were together, along with glimpses of her current and past relationship with A-kun.
But a story of past and present loves would be a bit boring without friends to bounce it all off of/get in your way and muck things up. So A-ko has her good friends, K-ko and U-ko, who both attended art school with her. And she has a weird frenemy type in I-ko, who also went to art school with them, but had a huge crush on A-taro, so she’s always been grumpy about A-ko. The tension with I-ko produces some of the funniest moments in the books, like when she runs into K-ko and A-ko at an art supply store and they all end up going for coffee together because none of them can quite manage to say “well, see you. Nice running into you.” Awkward politeness carries them from the art store to a cafe and even to a park to check out the sakura blossoms later. Or when I-ko goes over to K-ko’s place at New Year’s and they end up getting spitefully drunk together.
Although the book is ostensibly about A-ko and her boyfriends, Kondoh takes a wider view to show us the doings of A-ko’s friends and the inner workings of the boyfriends’ minds. So we get casually great moments like when the clerk at the pet store asks A-taro out. It’s utterly adorable—the clerk is shaking as he thrusts a box of chocolates toward A-taro, A-taro is surprised, but kind. What makes it great is how natural it feels, just a boy confessing his love to another boy, nothing to see here. But of course, this is the kind of thing we rarely see in non-BL manga, so it actually is something to see.
Kondoh also makes deft use of non-linear storytelling here, going back and forth in time to reveal events at just the right moments for the greatest impact. The Valentine’s Day chapters which present two versions of the same events are maybe the best example of this, but my favourite is probably when the big reveal of book two takes place, another moment that is no big deal except in the fact that we rarely see moments like this in manga. I won’t spoil what is revealed, but I can say that it happens when A-ko has her legs up on the shoulders of A-kun during sex. It’s presented in the most accepting and casual of ways, but given that most sex is alluded to in conversations or hidden away under blankets, even in josei books, it feels fresh and interesting.
All these words to say: hooray Akino Kondoh! (I guess that is the tl;dr version. Maybe I should have put it up top?)