I go through these periods of feeling like a robot. Maybe everyone does? I feel like it’s hard not to, since so much of life if just doing the same things over and over again. It’s honestly inescapable, unless you go total anarchic fatalist and stop eating, bathing, and doing anything that goes along with the larger world around you. I mean, you have to sleep, you have to eat, and eventually you’re going to need to clean your body and your environment, or you’re going to end up paying some serious consequences health-wise. And most of us do these essential life things in a pretty ritualistic way. Like, I have eaten some form of toast, cheese, and fruit for breakfast almost every day for the better part of twenty years, maybe longer. At some point in my young adulthood, I realized that this is the easiest and tastiest breakfast I can prepare for myself in a minimal amount of time, and I just stuck with it. I enjoy a waffle or a bowl of rice with a delightful assortment of side dishes from time to time, but there’s no way I’m getting up early just to put fancier food in my face.
And then you generally have to go to work and do the job you have so you can pay for the food in your face and the place where you sleep and clean your body. Not everyone has to do this, but it’s the reality for a large percentage of us. If you have a job with prescribed hours, then you’re leaving home at a set time, eating meals on your set breaks, heading out at a set time, arriving home again at a set time. And then you do the things you need to do at home to be ready to do the whole thing again the next day. And even if you don’t have prescribed hours (like, say, a freelance translator), you still generally end up falling into some kind of rhythm, if only so you’re not totally at odds with the hours that everyone else keeps. You might love this job that sets your daily rhythms (I do!), but it can still start to feel empty and mechanical from time to time.
When I start feeling like a robot, I daydream about dropping everything and running away to Brazil to live a modest rainforest life. This would definitely be a Very Terrible Idea, not only because I dislike the out of doors, insects, and extreme humidity, but also because I do not speak Portuguese and don’t actually know the first thing about Brazil. But for some reason, my go-to spot for fleeing my robot life has been Brazil for as long as I can remember. Perhaps it’s the fact that the place is entirely unknown to me that makes it so appealing. At any rate, my daydream rain forest life would almost certainly be entirely different from the Extremely Urban life I live now.
Nagi no Oitoma’s titular Nagi does not flee to Brazil, but she does entirely drop out of the life she once had in her late twenties, and this alone made this title deeply appealing to me. The fantasy of dropping everything and starting over in manga form! One of my favourite forms! Nagi doesn’t leave her old life because of robotic feelings, but rather because she is living a pretty serious lie in almost every way. She spends painstaking hours every day straightening her tightly curled hair and pretends to everyone, including her boyfriend Gamon, that her hair is just naturally that way. She tries to be what everyone around her wants, smiling demurely and never saying how she really feels, so that she ends up scorned and used by pretty much everyone in her life until one day, she collapses, unable to breathe. She was so intent on being everything to everyone, she lost sight of who she is to herself.
So she quits her prestigious office job, moves out of her beautiful central apartment, tosses all her possessions, and moves into a tiny apartment in the suburbs to start her “oitoma”, a flowery way of saying “I quit.” The English subtitle is “Nagi’s Long Vacation”, and while that is indeed what she is taking, it lacks the euphemistic oompf of “oitoma”. Whatever you call it, Nagi is fully and entirely free, with nothing but her own self to fill her days. She embarks on a mission of self-improvement, and at first, spends a lot of time at the library, but then as she gets to know her neighbours and settle into her new world, her navel-gazing turns outward and she tries to accept the outside challenges as they come and do all the things she never did before.
One thing that struck me is how she realizes she says “but” whenever anyone proposes something new to her in an attempt to shoot the idea down with all the reasons that she could never. So she forces herself to stop with the “but” and simply imagine herself doing the thing. If the image excites her, she does the thing. It’s such a simple, but powerful way to change your own behaviour and patterns. As Nagi reevaluates herself, she remembers past situations where she was embarrassed or wrong or otherwise regretful, and it’s interesting to see her reflect on herself and try to change.
Konami also tries to highlight the difference between intention and action when she shows these scenes from the perspective of the other person involved, most often with ex-boyfriend (and asshat) Gamon, so that we see someone’s terrible behaviour contrasted with what they were actually feeling and thinking. This is more effective when the person in question is oblivious or self-deluding, like her fellow unemployed person Sakamoto, who fails to see all the red flags at a job interview at a clearly dodgy company. But it works less well when it’s Gamon who treats Nagi like crap in every single interaction Konami shows us. It doesn’t really matter if he actually likes her or thinks she’s cute when he takes every single opportunity to tell her what a dog she is with her natural hair and make fun of every aspect of her personality and life.
If it wasn’t for this entirely awful ex-boyfriend who keeps showing up like that spider I keep having to catch and set free (I’m sure it’s the same spider. Spider, you cannot live in my house!), I would unequivocally be recommending this series as a great josei book about the pressures of life in modern Japan and how we navigate the world while remaining true to our selves and trying to become better people. It took third place in the Manga Taisho last year and a Japan Media Arts excellence award this year. The art is expressive and cute. The characters are largely people underserved and neglected by Japanese society and not often represented in manga, with a healthy dash of criticism of the sexism in Japanese office culture. Nagi is obsessed with thriftiness, so even though this isn’t a food/craft manga, there are plenty of fun recipes and crafts to try in its pages.
But Konami seems pretty set on Nagi and Gamon getting back together at some point (as of volume five), and their relationship is seriously toxic and also kind of rape-y. (Plus, Nagi is drawn as more and more boobtacular until she is basically boobs from chin to waist, which is deeply distracting, and honestly why?) My fingers are tightly crossed that it will not end up with them getting back together. Hopefully, they both learn from their experiences with each other and go on to lead fulfilling lives without ever crossing paths again, and then I can say without hesitation that you should all be reading this lovely josei series and learning to be okay with yourself and also how to make bread in a frying pan.