When I first came across Nakano’s work, I vowed to read more of it, so taken was my brain with her retro stylings. And then…I just forgot? There are so many books for my brain to battle in this world, it’s easy to lose track of a particular artist, especially when that artist seems to only write for the alt-manga magazine Ax, which is not available in your average bookstore. The bookstore by my house is basically your average bookstore, and while I do make trips to better-stocked/weirder bookstores, the sad fact is that I am going to miss some of the more indie stuff unless I’m actively hunting it down. And while I really liked Shisei, I didn’t like it enough to have a Nakano radar implanted in my brain like I did with est em or Miki Yamamoto or Fumiko Fumi. Maybe because Shisei interested me more in terms of style than story. Or maybe because it is a collection of shorts, and I tend to fall harder for longer stories.
After stumbling upon Mori Mite at one of those weirder bookstores I frequent, I feel like it may be mostly the latter. Because although this story clearly started with the first chapter of this book as a one-shot, it must have been well received enough to flesh out into a book-length project. The one-shot “Mori no Machibari” is a little trip into the woods in France where a hiker stumbles into a fairy ring and finds a group of pixies. He helps them untangle the ribbons of their maypole, but accidentally insults them, and they send him back to the woods of the real world. This little story provides a jumping off point for the rest of the book; Nakano takes us back into those woods to show us just what is going on through protagonists Luc and Kazushi.
The beginning fumbles for its feet, turning to random coincidences to really get going. Kazushi is a Japanese guy working at a flower shop in what I assume is France, and he is on a delivery on his motorcycle when he swerves off the road and crashes to avoid hitting Luc, a man with a Painful Past™. Luc comes to visit him in the hospital, and Kazushi begs him to drive him around on his flower deliveries lest his fearsome boss “Monsieur” tear him a new one. This beginning, while charming in its own way (especially a scene where a nurse scolds Kazushi for looking like a dirty hippie and takes it upon herself to cut his hair), feels forced and not quite true to either character, especially Luc. He honestly seems so indifferent to Kazushi’s dilemma that it’s surprising when he ends up going along with the scheme. And this decision never feels justified by later character development.
The same is true for the terrible boss Monsieur, who turns out not to be a monster at all and would have totally understood that Kazushi needed to take a little time off because he was in an accident that put him in the hospital. So the initial character and story choices feel a bit wonky, but the story finds its footing once Luc and Kazushi are making deliveries together and run out of gas way up in the forests of the mountains. They find a little girl trapped in a parachute in a tree, and she leads them back to her home deep in the woods, where they are welcomed as honoured guests. Her home appears to be a girls’ boarding school where they study herbs and herbal medicines. Weirdness naturally ensues, and Luc is forced to confront his Painful Past™.
The art is true to Nakano’s foreign influences, the French setting and that same retro style, but it feels like she’s managed to pull closer to a manga style, with panelling and pacing that feels very Japanese, a camera that often follows the characters, but also breaks away to tell the story through the landscape surrounding them. Mori Mite feels like a solid balance between manga and comics influences, taking the best of both to create something really original. Story-wise too, she draws on Western ideas about fairies and magic, but mixes in some distinctly Japanese elements to offer up a mystical world that feels both fresh and familiar.
By the end of the book, I had forgotten about the shaky start. Nakano manages to turn these characters into real people in a surreal setting full of beautiful moments, like the girls of the school sleeping peacefully in their silken sacs way up in the tree. And she gives us two endings, in a way: the character who decides to stay in the fantasy world and the one who returns to the real world. In both endings, she leaves us with a bit of magic hiding just around the corner.