Boy Meets “Crazy” Girl: Natsuko Kawa

Boy_KawaI’m not going to lie here. When I saw the title of this volume on Feel Young’s Twitter feed, I rolled my eyes so hard, I’m pretty sure I sprained something. Oh, the girls, they are so crazy! They have all these feelings! They are lunatics who need to be reined in lest they—gasp—enjoy their lives however they wish without sternly judging eyes following them wherever they go! And I know it’s a Japanese person using an English word in a Japanese context, but the word “crazy” itself has just got to go. It trivializes and stigmatizes mental illness, and there’s just no reason for using it. There’s always a more appropriate word for what you’re trying to say. In the case of this title, that word would probably be “wacky”. Or maybe “over-the-top”. Both of these are a lot more descriptive of the girl(s) in question and don’t inadvertently point a finger at mental illness. Seriously, friends, let’s all think about the words we use (says the woman whose job is to literally think about the words she uses).

Despite my exasperation with the title, though, the cover was strangely compelling (those eyes! the freckles!! the thread glued to the painting like space hair!) when I saw it at the bookstore, and I tend to enjoy the stuff in Feel Young, so I figured I’d give it a try. Friends, I’m pleased to report I have no regrets. The scare quotes around “crazy” make the title more of a nudge-nudge-wink-wink nod to all the stereotypes about women hiding in that well-worn trope than the scare-quote free version I saw on Twitter, and this selection of twelve rather short stories is far from the heartbreak and manic pixie dream girl style that I was expecting.

In fact, half of the stories don’t have anything to do with romance at all. With “boy meets girl” right there in the title, I naturally assumed that these would be relationships of the romantic variety, but Kawa takes relationships of all kinds as her subject matter, looking into the space between two people and what can happen there. So in “Avatar of You”, slovenly shut-in Kazumi is ambushed by his overbearing older sister, who is determined to make him into an “ideal man”. She can live his life better than he can, being smart and talented and determined, in contrast to his aimless wandering through life. And why should he have everything she wants just because he was born a boy? This is likely more of a comment on a sexist society than an expression of a trans identity, but I liked seeing those words coming from her mouth, a little jab at the norms. So she remakes her brother in her image, gives him a script, and makes him into her avatar.

Tamaji_Kawa“Kimi ni Naritai Girl” is another story that’s about a particular relationship between a boy and a girl, rather than the budding of some romantic love. Tamaji looks up to Naruo so much that she starts dressing like him, cuts her hair like his, and basically becomes his shorter twin, much to the chagrin of her older brother who liked his cute, typically feminine little sister a lot more than this boyish creature she’s become. In “Bus Machi Girl”, the narrator works at a gas station and serves as a kind of substitute father/older brother to his teenaged neighbour Riho. She gives his email to the school, so that when she skips to go wait at a bus stop that’s no longer part of any bus route, the school contacts him rather than her father. It’s a sweet story about the everyday unnoticed generosity of the people who love us.Bus_Kawa

Of course, there are also stories of the romantic nature in here. My favourite is maybe the pair “Chuya Gyakuten Girl Side-Boy” and “Chuya Gyakuten Girl Side-Girl”. “Side-Boy” is told from the perspective of the husband of a woman who sleeps during the day and is active at night. It’s not that she has a night job or anything; she’s just always had her sleep cycle reversed like this. He has a regular day job, so he goes to bed at night and gets up in the morning. She’s always there when he wakes up, making him breakfast, creating this warm space for the two of them, and he’s not unhappy with the situation. But he feels a bit sad that he never gets to see her sleeping face. Meanwhile, in “Side-Girl”, the wife struggles with finding a partner who can accept her unusual lifestyle. One guy tries to make her sleep at night with him, another tries to stay up at night with her. But it’s only when she goes on a trip with her future husband that she finds the acceptance she’s looking for.Sleep_Kawa

Kawa even dips her toes into the speculative stream. The convenience store manager in “Tencho to Baito no Hanashi” is upset when one of his clerks abruptly quits. He insists on taking the clerk out for ramen at the end of their shift, and as they walk along, he learns the clerk is leaving to go home. But the manager knows his home isn’t on this planet. Kawa plays this like it’s the most natural thing in the world, right up to the end, making the whole thing more poignant in unexpected ways.Alien_Kawa

The art style is pretty Feel Young, so if you’ve enjoyed other offerings from the magazine, this will probably be a pleasant treat for your eyeballs. There’s a looseness and unexpected motion in Kawa’s lines sometimes, though, giving her stories a hazy edge like something from a dreamscape. And she moves more in that direction with the later stories, so I hope we get to see her fully develop her style in a longer work or even another collection of stories. It’s always a treat to look at a debut collection like this and see an artist’s progress as she finds her footing in the professional world where you can’t exactly spend a week fine-tuning a single panel. Look for Natsuko Kawa. If she keeps this up, her first series is going to be something worth reading. And will probably get turned into a drama, in the way of all interesting josei works.    

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