Holy smokes! Last Friday of the year! I hope you’ve all sent out your New Year cards already and are ready to settle in for some solid holiday laziness. I will be doing plenty of loafing about, reading manga and eating mochi since I have been told that this is the optimal way to spend the New Year. Don’t worry, though! I will be careful with the mochi. You won’t see me on the NHK news on New Year’s Day as one of the tragic revellers who choked to death on a holiday treat. (Honestly, it’s a bit surprising that mochi is still a thing people want to eat given how often people choke on it. Maybe we should just all eat mochi-shaped cookies instead.)
And if you, like me, are intending to expend the bare minimum of energy this holiday season, then perhaps you are looking to stock up on books to read, so that you can stack them up next to the sofa or your bed or the kotatsu to eliminate even trips to the bookshelf and maximize laziness. Perhaps that quest for books has led you here to me now. So I’m happy to inform you that I have got your back on this one. In December alone, I read these great books that you also might enjoy! But if you’ve already read those and all of the other books I wrote about this year or none of them really appeals to you (although I must question why you are even here in that case), here is one final offering for 2018.
This year’s been a good one for Akane Torikai, especially the last few months. She’s had a new book come out every month since September, including the journal/memoir Manga Mitaina Koi Kudasai, which I am very curious to read, coming out as it did hot on the heels of her marriage to fellow manga artist (and 2018 TCAF guest) Inio Asano. Which would be another big deal thing that happened to her this year. So it seems like the perfect time to take a look at her work here. Not to mention the fact that she was kind enough to gift me both volumes of her November release, Mandarin Gypsy Cat, making the whole endeavour that much easier.
First of all, let’s just note that these are beautiful books. The covers are shiny gold (volume one) and silver (volume two), with an illustration and obi text that continues across both. I would buy this poster and put it on my wall, it is so lovely. The print quality inside is just as high, and if this were to be released in North America (which it never will be because josei), it practically demands a loving hardcover edition. Really, it should have gotten that kind of treatment in Japanese, but that is not a thing here, so we must settle for these deluxe paperbacks.
The story is complicated and complex in a way that is hard to sum up without ruining how deftly Torikai spins her tale. So let’s go with the version on the obi: in a dystopian world of women, the body of a man is a mystery. And a lone man sells his nights to women for money. There’s a lot of smart world-building here, and information is parcelled out at just the right pace, so at first, we are introduced to our protagonist Sanada at a batting cage in a kind of run-down part of town that looks like maybe China or Japan or somewhere entirely not of this world, and that unidentifiability makes it easy to accept this strange new world. It also gives it an element of a fable or fairy tale when we learn that the world is composed of “town” and “not town”.
The people in town call “not town” the slums, but the two areas sit across a body of water from each other, and people unable to deal with the pressures or conformity of life in town flee across the water to not-town. So the women in not-town cobble together a life under the radar, excluded from the good graces of the rulers of the town, where life is good as long as you toe the line and do your duty. Which involves a kind of breeding program since this is also a world where men are almost never born and women are not so fertile.
So against this larger background, the young woman Sanada is a bit of a queen of the roost in not-town, just trying to get by with her friend, Reiho, who happens to be a man and is always on guard against the possibility of “rats” coming from town to steal him away or otherwise mess with his shit. They are soon joined by four other women, who have escaped from town for their own reasons to make a go of it in not-town. After setting us up in not-town, Torikai gradually weaves the town side of things into the story, eventually bringing the two sides together and that’s when you really get to see the weird, dark side of this dystopia she’s created on the page.
The whole thing is done in her loose, flowing lines and detached copic brush strokes, for an art style that’s somehow both intimate and removed at the same time. The luxurious depictions of the cityscape of town are in stark and perfect contrast with the rambling shacks and mismatched nature of not-town, reinforcing that fairytale element. And unlike most manga, this ran in the pages of a literature magazine Da Vinci, which allowed Torikai to stray further from the conventional tropes of manga and produce something more on the literary/artistic side of that fence.
It’s lush and beautiful and expressive, and her interpretation of a world of women is fascinating. Plus, I always love seeing speculative stories in the world of josei. It’s such a treat when an artist pushes at the boundaries of a genre to take it in new and interesting directions. Here’s hoping this opens the door to even more speculative josei, and perhaps—dare I dream it??—publication in English for Torikai at long last.