I read the first two volumes of qtµt just after volume two came out at the end of May, and I have been sitting on them ever since because I honestly don’t know what to make of this bizarre collaboration between author Sayawaka and artist (and Brain favourite) Fumiko Fumi. Every time I think about it, a tiny bomb goes off in another part of my poor, beleaguered head. Wait, so did she—Boom! But then how do they—Kablam! Does that mean—Pakow! While I have heard bands that I had no idea how to react to the first time I encountered them (Moe and Ghosts being the most recent notable example), I think this is the first time I’ve ever felt this way about a book. Given the unfamiliar territory my brain and I suddenly find ourselves in, I figured the best course of action would be to wait for the next volume and see how this strange mess plays out. But every time I see the books on my shelf, the explosions start again, and I realized I was going to have to hammer it all out here or risk having too little brain still intact to tackle volume three.
The English tagline on the cover informs us that “The girl(s) don’t even know love, truth, and lies, either.” Which…sure? I guess so? What does that mean? The questions start so early on with this series. The obi is littered with blurbs. “Whoa, I’ve never seen this before,” declares anime screenwriter Mari Okada. And yes, I have to agree with her. “Terrible things happen to cute girls, so I’m happy,” announces the writer of Madoka Magica, Gen Urobuchi. And again, I can’t say that he’s wrong. But why are terrible things happening to cute girls? What is the point here? That is where my brain goes off the rails. Actually, that is one of several places my brain goes off the rails. Let’s get down to it.
First, the story. After this image, find a brief overview of the first chapter or so. After the second image, some discussion of more detailed plot stuff (although nothing beyond the middle-ish of volume one), but if you want to stay completely fresh, skip over that bit to when I get back to talking about impressions and all that after the third image below. Also, this series gets really dark. So you might want to bail on it entirely if you don’t want to deal with not-okay sex and also-not-okay suicide.
Grade eight student Hana gets a letter in her school shoe locker with a strange trumpet postmark on it. The note inside looks cut and pasted like a ransom note, and says only “Don’t talk.” Best friend Yotsuba wonders if it’s a love letter and decides to get to the bottom of the whole thing. Later in the student council office, the pair discuss the letter with the other two members of their little group: Honoka, the student council secretary, and Kokuri, a rising idol/pop star. Each of the girls fits a certain standard type of junior high girl you often see in manga: the “average” one, the boyish athlete, the busty Japanese beauty, the flat-chested cutie. So far, everything seems like a pretty standard shojo-leaning story. Except for that postmark.
The writer of this story is Sayawaka, unknown to me at the time of picking this series up, but after all the brain explosions, you know I was looking up his deal so fast. He is apparently an essayist and pop culture critic. As far as I know, I’ve never read any of his other work, and I’m still not sure I want to. I need to unravel this tangled thread that is qtµt before I go digging into his back catalogue. So I can’t say what his general deal is. But Fumi is the artist, and we all know she gravitates toward stories of sexuality and gender. So there’s no way this was going to stay a standard shojo-leaning story. And forty pages in, we get our first taste of the “terrible things” that happen to these cute girls. When Yotsuba gets home, her hikkikomori older brother demands that she greet him properly. Which is apparently by lifting her skirt to show him her knickerless bottom. And then he shoves her onto a table and rapes her. She goes to her happy place, and it’s clear that this is how she’s spent a lot of her life lately.
Then it’s a hard right back to Hana being a typical schoolgirl, lying on her bed in her pyjamas, wondering about this letter. Then another sharp turn to Kokuri after a live performance, being skeeved on by creepy fans and forced to essentially do porn by her even creepier manager. And lest you think Konoha is the sole light of non-skeevy sexuality in this series, turns out she’s got some stuff going on too.
And just when it seems the “terrible things” are girls being inappropriately sexed on, Hana and Yotsuba are attacked by women in caps and imposing cloaks. Hana wonders aloud if they are postal workers. And the answer is yes. But not the sort that Hana is thinking of. So the cloaked postal workers try to kill Hana for talking about whatever it is she’s not supposed to talk about, and she is saved by a man in a lab coat and a tiny girl with an enormous collar and cat ears. Who is some kind of mutant (the titular “cutie mutie”) who can induce completely immersive, paralyzing sexual fantasies in the minds of her victims. Uh, what?
Welcome back from spoiler town!
That little summary doesn’t even carry us to the end of book one. The story veers from innocent and sweet and funny into terrible and dark and heart-wrenching with essentially no advance notice. Fumi’s art is at its most cartoon-like here, forgoing the more serious touches she brought to works like Bokura no Hentai. So it’s even more jarring and heart-wrenching when the terrible things do happen. The series seems so tonally deaf, jumping from one story track to another, so that comedy segues into tragedy segues into schoolgirl romp segues into hard sci-fi. And yet it’s so, so readable. Fumi knows how to lay out a manga to draw a reader forward, and apparently Sayawaka knows how to pace one so that he at least isn’t getting in Fumi’s way.
If you are a book nerd (and if you’re not, why are you hanging out here with my brain? You must have more interesting things to do), that postmark thing probably made your brain twitch somewhere. Even if it’s been years since you read The Crying of Lot 49 (like it has been for me), you probably caught onto the whole secret postal service at war with separate secret postal service thing implied by the trumpet postmark and the mysterious postal workers attacking Hana. Those are not the only pieces of Pynchon’s novel to make their way into qtµt, making the series feel a bit like a mash-up of Lot 49 with a standard shojo story with a hearty splash of “terrible things”. Do you see why I can’t make heads or tails of this? Where is it going? Is it interesting or exploitative? Why Pynchon?? None of this makes any sense, and part of my brain wants to just walk away. But the rest of my brain cannot stand so many unanswered questions. So I’ll be at the bookstore when volume three comes out. Only to discover more things that make no sense, I’m sure. But the nonsense of it is just so fascinating.