Oukoku Monogatari: Asumiko Nakamura

Oukoku_NakamuraIt’s a good time to be a Nakamura fan. We’re getting not one, but two new translations of her work in English (both by me and I couldn’t be happier about it), there’s art shows and new editions and more to celebrate the tenth anniversary of her classic BL Dokyusei, the gorgeous set put out by Ohta and Libre to celebrate her fifteenth year as a manga artist, and now we have what the extra insert tells me is her first long-form fantasy story. Even if we only had that last one, though, it would be a great year for Nakamura.

It seems, however, that this new series did not spring from her brow fully formed like Athena. Although the first volume was published just this summer, in a delicious edition with a dizzying number of full-colour pages and black-and-white pages that are a beautiful bleached white, its earliest chapters date back to 2011. I actually have the issue of Erotics f that was home to the third chapter, the first of three about the king and his aide, complete with a pictorial of Nakamura’s work process on the story and a long interview with her. This chapter manages to tell such a complete story in only nine pages that upon first read way back all those years ago, I never expected to read anything else about this strange relationship. And yet seeing it newly published in this beautiful volume, it seems like it was always meant to be part of a larger story.

Love_NakamuraAlso, can we talk for a minute about why Nakamura’s never done a proper fantasy story before? This is not to denigrate the work she has done because you know I am speaking from a place of love here, but her style is almost unbearably perfect for some seriously high fantasy. The air of mystery that clings to almost everything she does, the allure of her other-worldly hair styles, all those long, elegant bodies. And the eyelashes. Ugh, don’t get me started on her eyelashes. Everything about her art is fantastical, honestly. How has she spent the last fifteen and more years drawing stuff that’s more or less set in the real world when all her characters look one step away from sorcerers and fairies?

So you know my fingers are crossed that this new foray into fantasy lasts a long time. Because it is so decadent! And sexy. And mythic. And somehow eternal, especially the first two chapters “Aadorute and Aadarute” and “Aadarute and Aadorute”. The two titular characters are twin brothers, one locked up from birth in a strange prison, the other the next king of that land. The prince happens upon the prisoner, and they spend night after night together on either side of the prison wall, growing closer. But the prisoner is in there for a reason, and it looks like their growing love will be thwarted when dramatic climax! I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the breezy way Nakamura pulls us through their story from beginning to end felt so much like a myth or a fairy tale. She doesn’t bother with annoying details like why he was a prisoner, but rather focusses on their relationship and the love that grows between them. It has such a timeless quality that I can see myself reading just these two chapters over and over again like a bedtime story.

Twins_NakamuraThe rest of the book is not quite as mythic, almost as though the long-term form of the series has started to gel and Nakamura is turning her efforts toward realizing that. The next three chapters are about the king and his aide, starting with the original story from Erotics f and then moving backward through time to show us how the king and the aide got to that place. The last chapter takes us even further back to a time before the aide was the aide, back when he was simply a noble of a nomadic clan, the younger twin of a pair of brothers.

The bookended twinness of this volume intrigues me, and I’m curious to see if it’s a mere coincidence or a deliberate thematic exploration. Either way, I’m in love with the non-linear storytelling, and I do hope that continues throughout the series. It’s so common for manga to barrel ahead in a linear fashion that I literally can’t remember reading a story that does anything but that, and while linear storytelling is all fine and good, I do enjoy stories that pick up their ends and starts wherever they feel like it and assume the reader will figure it out as they go. (Aside: I’ve always loved Cortázar’s Hopscotch which perhaps instilled a love of bouncing through a narrative in me.)

Horse_NakamuraThe other-worldliness of this tale is emphasized in the landscape and the creatures that populate it. It would be easy to simply assume that this is some medieval tale of kings and paupers until you see the giant green, moustached things that the people of the land call “horses”. Or the long-tailed mammals that pass for “rabbits.” Nakamura adds just enough of her own inventions to make this world feel truly different from our own, but not so different that we can’t relate to it. It’s a joy to step into her beautiful creation, but I would be remiss if I did not appreciatively point out that this is just barely not a BL manga, and I love Nakamura all the more for getting the straights to read about hot dudes being hot together.Dance_Nakamura

2 thoughts on “Oukoku Monogatari: Asumiko Nakamura

  1. 15 years in the industry is not a small feat, especially considering how cutthroat it is.

    Her art is lovely but she doesn’t seem to be very strong in background details (like Kaoru Mori, for example). Maybe it’s deliberate, because every time I read her stories, I feel that she always leaves a huge space for the readers to interpret her characters. Like they’re both blank canvas and full of traits. Does that make any sense? Dokyusei is probably the most straight forward story she has ever written, but the others? Not so simple. I feel that her art is an integral part of this. Her characters live in between worlds, it seems. What you see is not always what you get. I agree that this fits the fantasy genre very much but on the other hand, personally for me, it makes some of the stories set in modern times feel a bit wonky.

    1. It’s definitely a feat to have staying power in the manga industry. Especially when your art style is so far from the mainstream. I think you’re right about the space that Nakamura leaves her readers. Maybe that’s why she’s hung around this long. I’ve always loved the way her work seems slightly apart from the world around us, and I think it’s this fantastical element of her art that makes it like this. Which just makes me wonder all the more why she’s waited so long to try her hand at a fantasy story.

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