October knocked me flat on my butt, as it does every year. And yet I am completely taken off guard by the frantic speed at which the days whip past when I still have so very much work to do before the calendar page montage reaches November. I have a couple series that always have a volume due for translation by the end of October. The Toronto International Festival of Authors is at the end of October, and I interpret for whichever Japanese author they invite across the ocean to be a part of the CanLit scene for a week. (This year, it was Kyoko Nakajima, whose first work in English translation The Little House has a tender queer aspect to it and name-drops Nobuko Yoshiya to ensure that the subtext is text and you don’t miss or willfully misinterpret it.) And of course, I usually embark on my winter life in Tokyo sometime in November, meaning there are all kinds of things that need doing in October before I can fly across the ocean to warmer climes. I know that this is how October is going to be, and still I wander through September blithely, certain that I have all the time in the world, that this October will be different. Reader, it was not.
So I spent the last month translating and reading and stalking Kyoko Nakajima online which left me little time to read anything that wasn’t written by or about Nakajima. But no worries! I am making up for that time away from my personal reading in spades this month. And first up is a book surprisingly long neglected by me, the debut manga of Brain darling Ayako Noda. How could I have left it unread for so long? Noda is an artist who has done nothing but dazzle me over the last few years. I cherish each of her new releases and struggle with my desire for her to hurry up and make more books, and my wish for her to live a healthy, happy life and not die young of overwork because the manga industry is a truly punishing one. But for some reason, it has taken me until now to read Watashi no Uchu. I think I was a little afraid it would be bad, thus tarnishing her perfection in my mind, however slightly. The cover of the first volume is all off-beat high school drama, and honestly, that’s just not my jam. I could’ve just read the back to discover that actually, it is much more than off-beat high school drama, but we all know that I avoid reading the backs of books. I like to go in fresh, without any cover copy to lead me in one direction or another.
But if I’d looked at the back just this once, I would’ve been reading this book ages ago. “The world we live in is manga, and I’m the protagonist.” Uh, what? I am obviously going to be down for some meta manga. And guess what? Noda managed to once again surprise and delight me in ways I never expected. (Other than the blushy noses. I was expecting those.) The thing I love most about this artist is her willingness to go all in on a story. Whether it’s a university student trying to give his virginity to his best friend or a goddess in love with a human being, Noda never holds back. She gives every story everything she has, and her passion for manga shines through so that those stories hold up even when there might be cracks in the foundation. Uchu is maybe the most wildly ambitious thing she’s ever done, and judging from the fact that I bought it six years after it came out and still managed to get a first printing of both volumes, and the fact that it is only two volumes long, I’m guessing this wild meta manga didn’t go over so well with the readers of IKKI.
Given its meta nature, this is a bit of a hard one to sum up. But the basic idea is that Uchu Hoshino realizes he’s actually the protagonist of a manga and not a real human being, and things sort of go from there. Alice Tsunomine is our tutorial character for this one. When Uchu stops showing up at school, she goes to his house with his twin brother Shinri to bring him his homework and also demand an explanation for his absence. She thought he was just skipping, but then he tells her how they are in a manga, pointing out the word balloons. It’s not that she can’t hear him over the sound of Shinri crunching on karinto, it’s that she can’t see. And he knows that he’s the protagonist because check it out, the title is Watashi no Uchu and not Watashi no Shinri or something. He is holding up the title as he says this. Yeah, things get weird right out of the gate.
Noda goes on to deconstruct her own manga in the pages that follow in ways that I won’t ruin the surprise of for you. Nothing could really be a spoiler in a book like this, but the twists and turns she takes in bringing the story to new and complicated places are a delight to discover. But when she has a certain character exit the story, she promises him that she will find him a new story where he is better used. And then she wrote that story! Uchu also features a brief cameo from the other main character in that story, warming my cold heart to unprecedented temperatures and making me want to go back and re-read those two books for clues about these two books.
She plays with genre within the form, dropping in an utterly clueless shojo character who thinks that every word out of her crush’s mouth is pure magic and who sprouts the flowers of the shojo world, which then get in the eyes of other characters. Then there is the chapter that is pure yon-koma, complete with all the tropes of a gag manga, before the manga itself breaks down into splashes of ink and handwritten dialogue. It’s a lot. And someday, I will write a longer essay about Noda’s insistence on interrogating what it means to create and the walls we build between our different worlds throughout her work because I think there’s a lot of interesting things to unpack there. But for now, let’s just agree that Watashi no Uchi is one hell of a way to start your career as a manga artist.