You know you are in for something when a manga artist chooses Ishitsuyo—“strong-willed”—as her pen name. You might not like whatever that something is, but you’ll probably remember it. Fortunately for me, Natsuko Ishitsuyo is exactly what I want to read, and I am frankly astounded that Majutsushi A, a collection of six short stories, is her debut work. It’s so assured and unlike anything I’ve come across in the world of manga before. My only critique of the book is that it’s not longer. Big words, I know, but I don’t say them lightly.
I’d heard nothing about Ishituyo before I stumbled across Majutsu in my neighbourhood bookstore when I went in to wait for the light to change, as I often do. When a bookstore is so conveniently located on the corner of a street you have to cross on your way home from the train station, you should stop in whenever you have to wait for a long light change. Because you will occasionally discover magic treats like this one. But the bookstore on the corner tends to be more mainstream, and their new release shelf rarely features anything that interests me, mostly run-of-the-mill shojo and shonen, with some mainstream BL tossed in for variety. So it was almost shocking to see the stark black and red and the strange portrait gracing the cover of Majutsu. The sly smile playing on the woman’s practically compels you to pick the book up. Kudos to the cover designer on this one!
As is my wont, I read none of the cover copy; I simply judged this one by its cover and plunked down my eight hundred yen, and I was in and out of the store before the light changed my way. I was already flipping through the book as I made the rest of the journey to my apartment. The cover was so tantalizing, I had to know what was inside. And the first page of the first story features a school girl reading “Monthly Ladies’ Masturbation” asking another school girl if she wants to make out. Flip a few more pages to find a girl having her nipples tugged on by a much older man in the bathtub of a love hotel. From there to a female teacher holding a strawberry-shaped pocket mirror up to the vulva of a girl with her legs spread on the floor of a classroom. This one is not for the faint of heart/squeamish about sexuality.
Every story features a female protagonist tackling her own sexuality in new and generally taboo ways, trying to subvert the system she is a part of and find new ways to be strong. So Arisa in “Megami” is the most popular girl in school; the other girls fawn over her, copy her, try to be her. But it’s so meaningless to Arisa. She wants something more, although she doesn’t know what it is. Until one day, she encounters Meg stealing porn magazines from the over-18 section of a bookstore. Shocked at first, she runs away, but then her curiosity takes over, and she goes back. She sees in Meg a different way of being, a more meaningful existence somehow. Of course, sex is involved, because sex is involved in every story in this book.
Often, the sex is “compensated,” like Erina in “Kebab”. She can’t bear how uncritical her peers are, and she complains about how shallow they are to her compensator, Shin, while he fondles her in the tub. These girls getting paid for sex reminded me of the “enjo kosai” panic that was still burning bright when I first moved to Japan. The conversation around compensated dating has always centered on moral outrage and hand-wringing, with some mud-flinging at particular groups of girls as being the spread of this terrible practice (most notably, gyaru and their many offshoots). But interestingly, Ishitsuyo presents the compensated daters as being active participants, enjoying not just the money they earn, but also the sex itself.
Almost as if to drive home the idea that these girls are owning their sexuality and not the other way around, she gives us “Korikoriya-san”, in which girls pay a dumpy man to digitally masturbate them behind a pile of sewer-sized pipes in what appears to be a park. Maria starts visiting him after girls at school make fun of her for talking about “affirmation training”. She wants to keep her thinking flexible, to create something new, live her own life, and the stress relief provided by the Korikoriya-san frees her mind, allowing her to take herself in new directions. Of course, the new direction she chooses is new kinds of masturbation services.
Full of cross-hatching and round lines, Ishitsuyo offers a complementary sensuality in the art she uses to tell these stories of girls getting weirdly busy. But the look of this book has much more in common with independent Western comics than anything currently around on the manga market in Japan. Which should come as no surprise since the cover obi proudly announces that she went to art school in Czechoslovakia. And I don’t know if I’m taking subliminal suggestions from the obi, but Ishitsuyo’s work does somehow look Eastern European to me, although I can’t actually pin down how or why because I don’t think I’ve ever read an Eastern European comic before. There’s just something about the slight dotted lines she uses to indicate the arches of noses that feels so European to me. This is still Japan, though, so none of the pubes you might see in a European comic are on display here. Which makes for a couple strange blank spots where junk should be, and I wonder if it was a deliberate choice to draw them from an angle where she’d be forced to leave a blank spot in order to conform with indecency laws.
Basically, keep your eye on Natsuko Ishitsuyo. She’s probably never going to be published in English, but she will definitely be influencing some of the artists who do get translated into English, and you can be all, “oh, you can totally see Ishitsuyo’s influence” and sound like a smarty-pants.