I’ve mentioned before that I used to live in Atami, right? Years and years ago, but I still go back frequently to visit friends and go on the natsukashii tour that one friend in particular loves to take me on. (This always involves drinking too much and an enka “lesson” at karaoke. I kill at “Midaregami” and “Juuku no Haru”.) And I think of Atami as my Japanese hometown, so I have a special place in my heart for the sleepy seaside resort. Although I would never live there again. All those tourists having fun while you are trudging to work hungover is seriously the worst. But visiting is great! I understand now what those tourists see in the town. Hotels with rotenburo and ocean views, what’s not to love! You should totally go!
So naturally, when I went to the bookstore within hours of stepping off the plane on this side of the ocean again, Atami no Uchujin caught my eye. The title was enough to get me to pick up this debut collection of stories by Hara, the strange half-erased character on the cover had me considering buying it, and the Beam Comix stamp on the spine sealed the deal. (Creators take note! It often takes random elements you will never understand coalescing in a singular moment for people to buy your work. All you can do is in the end make the work!) I don’t like everything Beam puts out, but they are always interesting, at least, and generally more daring than your average manga magazine. Their debut authors are worth taking a chance on. (For me. The more shojo-oriented among you, for instance, may not feel the same.)
As is the way of this world, debut authors get one-shots to fit into empty slots in the magazine (when an artist with a series gets sick, etc.) that are collected into a tanko when they have enough one-shots to fill the pages of a full book. And Hara is no different. Atami is a collection of four shorter stories and one longer one written between 2013 and 2017, all but one (the earliest) published in Beam. The titular “Atami no Uchujin” shows us a writer with some serious writer’s block, who has come to Atami with her editor in order to find something to write about again. But then a UFO crashes into the ocean, and her editor drags an alien back to their hotel room together with some fine Atami swag. (Note: Please never buy the himono. They dry that stuff right on the road, basically, so your dried fish is full of car exhaust and passers-by kicking up dirt and dropping stuff on it. If that is your jam, I guess that’s fine, but please know that is what you are signing up for.)
“Atami” is honestly too few pages for the story that Hara is trying to tell, and it gets confusing in places. The ending also feels a little pat, like Hara (or her editor) wanted to end the whole thing on an upbeat note. But there is such beauty in it! The pensiveness of the writer, the enthusiasm of the alien for knowledge and life. And the art! Throughout this volume, I couldn’t help but think of Haruko Ichikawa and her metamorphoses. The two artists definitely share a fascination with what lies underneath, and the moments of transformation, the shedding of skin, are similar in a complementary way. Ichikawa tends to be more focussed on shadow, while Hara delights in playing with light. All of the stories here are awash in light, drawn so beautifully that I was honestly just gaping at the page at times.
Like in “Kome no Kairo”. Satomura is washing rice, thinking noodley thoughts, wondering why she always thinks of Mori when she washes rice, and the way Hara depicts the play of light and water in these panels is so lovely and real to me, especially her wet hand on the tap. The story becomes increasingly surreal, shifting from her kitchen to a stage complete with kuroko setting up props and costumes and an audience to witness the whole thing. And then suddenly Mori! And it turns out that he thinks about her when he washes rice too! This could be really disorienting for the reader, but Hori shows a keen understanding of pacing and panelling, and she expertly leads us to the rice-filled climax and beyond to the tongue-in-cheek conclusion.
The longest story in the book is “To Aru Kami-sama no Hoshi” (Planet of a Certain God), and the first chapter is stronger than the second, perhaps because it was intended to go longer, but didn’t find its footing with fans. Or maybe because Hara can’t quite stick the landing with a longer story yet. A space explorer crash lands on an alien planet and is put into a medical coma by his sentient suit in order to heal his injuries. He’s out long enough for the locals to build a shrine to the “god” who has come to their land. He wakes up and scares the crap out of a young woman bringing an offering, and ends up getting her help out of a serious jam and off the planet. There are some nice touches throughout to create a strange world of sentient potatoes and future technology, like a disco ball that compels everyone to dance, smoothing out dance-related anxieties and setting those feet loose.
But my favourite in the collection is probably the previously unpublished “Taika no Hi”. The day you become an adult is the day you “degenerate”. And I won’t spoil that little discovery for you, but what I love about it is how this strange, fantastical premise never overshadows the story. And this is something all the stories have in common, no matter how weird they might be. Hara knows where the central part of her stories are, and it’s not in the tech or the weirdness or the ghost-y bits. It’s in her characters and the life she imbues them with. So you might degenerate and thus become an adult, but the important part is that they say that if you confess your love to your crush on the day you degenerate, you’ll be together forever. But if you confess at the moment you degenerate, you’re doomed to be apart. When our heroine does just that, her crush tells her “You know, you can change your fate.” And when she does, I believe it.
Hara better be destined to make more manga. And if she’s not, I hope she changes that. Because I like where she is going.