Both surprised and not surprised at all to see the new Akane Torikai blurbed on the obi by another Brain favourite, Sayaka Murata. I knew she was a fan of Torikai’s work because well, we’ve gushed at each other about how we’re both fans of Torikai’s work. And blurbs really bring together all the different kinds of art in Japan—singers blurb novels, novelists blurb movies, movie stars blurb manga; the arts are weirdly supportive and interactive on this side of the ocean. But I always wonder how well known each of these artists are outside of their respective art form. Does the average manga reader know enough about Sayaka Murata to care what kind of manga she likes? Is this thoughtful paragraph on her impressions of the book and its themes enough to get the casual bookshop browser to walk over to the register and slap down some yen? I’m so curious about the overlap here. And wondering why we (mostly) don’t do this kind of cross-medium blurbing in the English publishing industry.
I obviously would have bought Saturn Return regardless of blurbers because Akane Torikai is fast becoming one of my favourite artists working in manga these days. And here is where I make my customary plea for an English publisher to please license something of hers so I can push it eagerly into the hands of all my friends, comics readers and non-readers alike. (Also, hire me to translate it, please and thank you!) Reading this volume, it struck me that her work really belongs with a “graphic novel” publisher rather than a manga publisher.
Both her art style and subject matter are so much more in the camp of the things that D&Q or L’Association publish rather than the books VIZ Media or Seven Seas do. And this realization made me wonder all over again if the label “manga” can actually be a hindrance to some books finding traction with overseas publishers and readers, especially when it comes to josei manga. Josei is usually tackling themes that aren’t part of the stereotypical North American definition of “manga”, which is often nearly synonymous with Shonen Jump style or Morning-style seinen comics. Maybe if josei was set free from the manga label, we’d get to see more of it in English?? (Yes, I am always dreaming.)
At any rate, even if it never sees the light of day in English, Saturn Return in Japanese is still…a lot. This should come as no surprised to anyone who has ever read any of Torikai’s work before. But let me warn you before we go any deeper into this particular work: lots of upsetting things in these pages, the biggest of which is probably the depictions of suicide, depression, and suicide ideation, but there’s also some sexual stuff which is uncomfortably close to non-consensual. If you’d rather skip out on any discussion of these issues, then you might prefer to read about longtime Brain favourite Aoi Ikebe this week and come back again next week when we will turn to less fraught themes.
First and foremost, Saturn is about loss and how we deal with it, what it does to us whether we realize it or not. Protagonist Ritsuko Kaji mostly realizes it, but it’s the part that she isn’t quite aware of that this whole story hinges on. It starts with a flashback, Ritsuko and a friend in the car, driving who knows where. They’re young—Ritsuko’s dyed hair and bare feet on the dashboard seem designed to communicate that information. The friend instructs her to write his story, as proof that he lived, because he’s going to die before he turns thirty. And then it’s the present day, Ritsuko’s novel is sitting on friend’s bookshelf, and he’s putting a noose around his neck. Right from the opening pages, this book is pulling zero punches.
The rest of the first volume (and presumably the story) is devoted to unpacking these opening pages. We learn that Ritsuko had her own brush with suicide, that she was talked down from that ledge, that her book on Friend’s shelf was her debut, a bestseller that has readers clamouring for more. But she’s written nothing since despite devoted editors pushing her for more, and she appears content to devote herself to housewifery. Until she gets a phone call telling her about the suicide from the beginning of the book, and things start to unravel and progress in unexpected ways.
Torikai’s laid all the groundwork in this first volume, the perfect fabric to pick apart and tease out new threads to take her readers to new and unexpected/dreaded places. She’s also striking out in new directions with her artwork, moving away from her Copic-heavy style to something more line oriented that somehow brings her work further away from the stereotypical manga style and toward a more European comic sensibility. She also takes the fullest advantage of the two-page spread, letting a single scene take up two full pages or running panels across both pages, which lends both a dreaminess and a grounded reality to these scenes.
Just when I thought she was already a master of her craft, Torikai pushes past her own boundaries to give us something powerfully part of her oeuvre but also new and exciting in surprising ways. But still deeply, harrowingly traumatic, so this series is off to an entirely on-brand start. I look forward to weeping helplessly over volume two.