Relationships in manga, notably in shojo and josei, tend to be pretty same-y, in that they are usually between a girl/woman and a boy/man. (Which is fine. All you hetero people can sit back down. I’m not about to start denigrating your lifestyle here or anything.) And they tend to follow the same set patterns: boy wants girl who does not want boy, girl wants boy who does not want girl, mutual want but: obstacles, mutual non-want but: forced together, and then the rarest of beasts: mutual want, happy relationship. Of course, there are variants and various degrees of rapey-ness, but on the whole, we get a whole lot of one lady-one man in mainstream manga. And sure, I can turn to my beloved BL, but even there, the preponderance of work is one dude (or dude-creature) for one dude (dude-creature).
None of these relationship patterns are good or bad in and of themselves. It’s just, I am so interested in all the ways we human beings relate to each other and how those relationships change depending on the perspective we come at them from. So I get excited about work that presents new perspectives on relationship styles. Which is why when I saw 1122 prominently displayed in my favourite bookstore, I was intrigued enough to pick it up. It was part of a display of josei manga that had been featured on TV recently, and whoever did the featuring had some pretty good taste; Aoi Ikebe’s Zassou and Princess Maison, along with Ryo Ikuemi’s Anata were also prominently displayed. The little blurb for 1122 noted that this couple had their own way of doing things when it came to sex and love. They were *gasp* in an open relationship. (Or: official cheating, in the Japanese, which I love. Sounds like they went to city hall and got certified to cheat or something.)
The reality in the book, though, turns out to be a different from the blurb. Thirty-something couple Ichiko and Otoya are indeed in an open relationship, but it’s more along the lines of Otoya has a lover and Ichiko is sexless, along with their marriage. They’ve decided that they will live their lives together and look for love outside of their marriage. And this reflects a real trend in Japanese society, according to the media, anyway. Sexless marriages are on the rise, and one prominent reason is that the couple has come to feel like family, and it is not so sexy anymore. This is exactly what Ichiko and Otoya realize. They are perfect partners in life, but not so great in the sack together. Or at least, not so interested in being in the sack together. So Otoya goes out and gets himself a lover, while Ichiko just kind of shrugs at the whole thing.
And a couple years into this arrangement, things seems to be going pretty well. Except Ichiko realizes that maybe she’s not as asexual as she thought she was. She reaches out to Otoya, but he rejects her advances in order to remain faithful to his lover. And while she understands this is the way they’ve decided things will be, she’s not actually all that happy with it anymore. And this is where a less nuanced take on the subject would have her become the vengeful, spurned wife and ruin Otoya’s relationship with his (also married) lover. But Watanabe is more interested in exploring Ichiko’s self-discovery, so we see her wrestle with her feelings about Otoya and his lover, and her own sexuality. In addition to what she expects from her life, her marriage, and herself.
It’s a much more thoughtful portrayal of a marriage than the “official cheating” would lead a reader to expect, and one that I really appreciated, especially being a woman of a certain age who is thinking more than she would like to be about ageing and death and the kinds of families we make and look to for support. Watanabe’s look at families isn’t limited to the one created by Otoya and Ichiko. She also shows us how Ichiko relies on Otoya to help her in her interactions with her mother and her birth family. And she shows us how Otoya’s lover, Mitsuki, wrestles with the family she married into, the family she’s creating with her husband, and the family she wants with Otoya. We’re only two books in so far, but from the way Watanabe is moving, I would expect to see further outward rippling of family interactions.
Watanabe also takes a look at how a person can feel like they have the perfect life, but still be unsatisfied and wanting, and the weird guilt that can come along with that. Sure, it goes without saying that this is first world whining here, but it’s interesting in that it provides an (unwanted) opportunity for introspection and self-examination. What do you do when you get what you think what you want, and you’re still not happy?
Given the subject matter and how topical it is, plus the recent spate of josei manga being turned into dramas, it’s probably only a matter of time before you can watch this story play out on TV. But it’s worth checking out on the printed page. Watanabe is a workhorse of the manga industry. She’s not out there winning all the prizes, but she’s always bringing everything she’s got, telling interesting stories with an emotive and distinct artistic style. She first caught my eye many years ago with her manga adaptation of the Hiromi Kanehara novel Hebi ni Piasu (which I still own despite several moves and accompanying shedding of books!), and she’s never really fallen off my radar because she so consistently delivers. 1122 is yet another solid entry in her catalogue.
UPDATE: It’s coming out in English! Now’s your chance to read some serious adulterous josei!