It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? For a while there, it felt like I was reading some new est em every other week, but then came the long dry spell after IKKI ended. Golondrina was supposed to have wrapped up in the next, unserialized volume already (last year, I think?), but we are still waiting for that, sadly. IPPO is coming out at its slow and steady pace. Other than that, though, the manga world has been sadly missing est em’s unique voice lately. No BL one-shots, no hilarious centaur books, nothing to tide us over in the between books in her ongoing series. Until now!
Ii ne! Hikaru Genji-kun started in Feel Young last year, and I read the first couple of chapters in the magazine. But then I had to go back to the land of icy tundras, and my easy access to Feel Young ended. So I’ve been waiting ever since for the release of the tankobon. Because the first chapters felt silly and fresh, like em was coming up for air after the serious action in Golondrina. She so often focusses on the drama and reality of relationships between people and all the heartbreak and difficulty that accompany that, that I forget sometimes just how truly funny she can be. The aforementioned centaur book is the last time I can remember where she just let herself run free with a silly idea, but even in the more serious centaur book (as serious as a book about centaur love can be), there were some truly hilarious moments. (I’m thinking of you, peeper horse in “Black and White”.)
The basic idea in Ii ne! is that Hikaru Genji from The Tale of Genji somehow walks into the present day and the apartment of 27-year-old Saori. The mechanics of this mysterious happening are not ever explored, in true BL fashion (although this book is not BL). Genji walks down a hallway and comes out the end of it in Saori’s apartment. And if you haven’t read The Tale of Genji, or at least the Wikipedia page, this might be a bit confusing. I mean, more confusing that a man in elaborate kimono walking through time in a dark hallway. A lot of the plot (and laughs) in the book centers on the fact that Genji is a superbly handsome ladykiller from the Heian era. So even though he is a total stranger and she has no idea what is really going on, Saori lets him stay in her apartment. Because she suspects he is actually the Genji from the old story she learned about in school. And because she half-melts every time he turns his expressive face toward her.
The rest of the volume is more or less a fish-out-of-water story. Genji is stunned by this new world he finds himself in, but readily adapts for the most part, and is soon enough up to his old ladykiller ways. But being a nobleman of the Heian era, whenever he is struck by powerful emotion, he expresses himself in haiku. The first of these is an ode to a matcha frappuccino, but he also later sings the praises of decorated fingernails and the free tissues handed out to him by the train station, among other things. His outsider perspective offers a strangely lovely insight into the tiny bits of beauty in our modern world. And it made me wish we still lived in a world where everyone just wrote poetry as a matter of course and communication. (Okay, “everyone” equals “the one percent”, but still, I don’t think the one percent these days spend their afternoons writing poetry, either.)
It’s a fun story, full of surprising tiny twists and giggles galore, so I was surprised to see that it is just a one-off. (Would-be publishers, take note! No ongoing series commitment to publishing this one!) I don’t know if it was always intended to just be one book or if it ended up not doing that well with Japanese readers, but we only get this one volume of Hikaru Genji crafting haiku for Twitter. And to a certain extent, I’m okay with that. This is the sort of premise that can get tired fast, and est em brought it to a pretty satisfying conclusion, although it did feel a bit rushed in places. I think two volumes would have been the perfect length for this story, but I am only the reader here, so of course, it is easy for me to do some backseat driving.
While she stays true to her own loose lines and minimalist style, est em does play around with some shojo conventions here, for maybe the first time ever. I don’t recall ever seeing her use the starry tone found in so many a shojo manga, but she uses it to spectacular effect here, a wonderful contrast with her own style and usual themes. She even tiptoes right up to the edge of those giant starry eyes shojo heroines stare at their love interests with. It’s a fun departure for est em. She also takes a jab at her own work with a chocolate fountain Genji that is pulled right from the pages of Sono Otoko, Amato ni Tsuki. And in the second chapter, she draws a dream Genji has of being back in the Heian era, and I really wanted to see more of that. The dreamy, faceless, traditional-looking figures are such a nice contrast with the main part of the story. Another reason why I thought this could have gone two volumes.
Basically, this is one of those books. If you like est em, you will probably have fun with this one. And if you don’t like est em, well, I’ve said it before, but maybe you are wrong? You can like her. Her work is very likeable. I think you are just not trying hard enough.