These sultry summer days have me wanting to hide indoors and keep myself safely air-conditioned and sweat-free. Being a freelancer is a great help in this mission, since I rarely have to go out during the day. I can sit comfortably in my tiny, chilled box of an apartment and peck away at my keyboard, translating all the great books people keep hiring me to translate. But being a freelancer also means that I’m in that little box of an apartment 24-7 if I don’t go out, and at some point, cabin fever starts to set in. I remember that I haven’t spoken to another human being in a couple days. The cupboards start to look bare. My friends send me desperate Lines, begging me to come out. But these are minor issues, easily overcome if you’re an experienced freelancer like me. No, when it truly become impossible to bear, when I absolutely must leave my cool comfort is the moment I run out of books to read. (Insert keyboard of doom sound here.)
Naturally, this is a situation that never happens to me in my Canadian digs. Mount Bookstoberead is always there, growing ever taller, threatening to topple over and murder me in an unguarded moment. But my Tokyo apartment is smaller and always temporary, so I try not to buy more than I can read at any given time. This is generally a sound policy. In the terrible, record-breaking heat of this year’s summer, however, it is a sweaty one. Forced out into the blazing sun, I skitter to the bookstore armed with parasol and water bottle, praying the sunstroke doesn’t strike me down in my mostly prime. Thankfully, the time outside is limited; bookstores are plentiful in this burning land. One such venture into the human breath heat led me to Colorless Girl, an unexpected treat that I then stayed inside to read, nicely chilled. (I know people without AC, and honestly, I don’t know how they are still alive this year. It was thirty-nine degrees in Tokyo! At seventy percent humidity! This kind of weather literally kills people.)
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Judge those books by their covers. That’s what it’s there for! Covers are designed to showcase some aspect of the book and sell that thing. So you will not be surprised to learn that what attracted me to Colorless Girl initially was the warm tones of the cover illustration and the simple, clear design. But what got me to actually take the book home was the statement below that illustration: “’He’s’ in the process of becoming ‘she’”. I’m always glad to see work that features LGBTQ characters, especially if that work comes from a queer creator. While I have no idea which way Shirono identifies, she (I’m assuming from the name) has managed to create a lovely, nuanced story that doesn’t whitewash the difficulties so many in the queer community face, but it also doesn’t fall into the terrible trap of tragedy for anyone deviating from the path of heteronormativity. (So far, at least. Only volume one’s been released.)
Aoi is the “he” in question from the cover. I’m going to stick with “he/him” for Aoi since he uses the masculine “I”, and a big part of the story is actually Aoi puzzling through exactly how he identifies and what he really wants from this life of his. Because although he is careful to spare no effort with his makeup and the perfect feminine outfit every day, he was born male and has only had the freedom to explore his gender identity since he started art school that year. He uses the makeup and cute clothes as a kind of armor—if he just keeps this mask up, then no one will see the real him, shy and afraid. He assumes that his two besties at university see him as a girl, and his world threatens to fall apart when they happen upon his official ID and the gender noted on it.
Just to emphasize the non-tragic nature of this story, the besties are one hundred percent cool about the whole thing. To the point where they both knew that Aoi was a guy from the time they met, but just liked him for who he is, not what he wears. And knowing this, knowing that these women have his back no matter what, Aoi feels braver in his exploration of his gender identity, especially now that he’s finally able to talk to his friends about it.
It feels like this was originally intended as a one-shot—or rather a two-shot, since the first two chapters of the book are the titular “Colorless Girl”. And the story ties up rather neatly, if a little facilely, in those two chapters. But perhaps the reader surveys were extra positive or Shirono’s editor decided to just push it and see where the whole thing would go; either way, there are another three chapters in this volume, which promises to be the first of more than one at least. The other chapters push a little further outward from this core group of Aoi, Rika, and Megu to bring in Mano from the graphic design department who has a crush on Rika and dig into Rika’s own backstory before zooming back in to focus on Aoi and the dreaded upcoming family event.
Shirono’s art is cute but not overly sweet, which makes it pretty perfect for telling a story like this. And she does this great thing where she has the speech balloons actually punch the characters when someone says something particular painful or difficult. She also clearly went to art school or has a good friend who did because her depictions of the various types of students found there and the different departments is pretty much spot on (says me who has more than one good friend who came up through the art university world and thus has many memories of going to meet said friends and seeing the many art scenes). I’m also very into the way she depicts the many front fringes of the various characters and half-wish I had longer hair right now so that I could try out some new fringe styles.
Things do threaten to get more tragic or at least fraught in the next volume, given the cliffhanger at the end of this one, but I do hope that Shirono can maintain the sensitive balance of this volume, steering clear of tragedy for tragedy’s sake, but honestly exploring the way our perceptions of ourselves change during these days of early adulthood and our first taste of freedom from the baggage of our families and parents.