Let’s begin with my usual lament and just get it out of the way: I can’t believe such an incredible artist is still unpublished in English. Torikai Akane has put out book after book of amazing beauty, art and text meshing so perfectly that I am frequently overwhelmed reading her work and have to put the book down for a while to process what I’m seeing on the page. Not to mention that she is always tackling difficult and often uncomfortable topics in her work so that it’s hard not to wince from time to time while reading her. Her work is deeply feminist and focussed on women and our experiences in Japanese society, shining a painful light on many things most people would rather look away from. And of course, the cynical part of me knows that this is a large part of the reason she is not published in English and will likely never be unless some indie publisher starts championing her cause. I’ve said it again and again, and it’s an obvious truth in the manga industry on this side of the ocean: josei gets the short shrift every single time.
It doesn’t help that Torikai’s art is also far from what the average North American consumer of manga expects to see on the pages of a book here. Detailed lines, realistic character designs, an elegant beauty that’s removed from the kind of manga that makes the bestseller list over here. And yet she finds a home and a following in Japan that allows her to keep publishing her difficult tales of sex and sexuality and relationships and society. (Mostly by publishing in seinen magazines since josei is also underappreciated in Japan. Art targeted at women is denigrated around the world!)
I read Zenryaku, Zenshin no Kimi back when it first came out, and then I had to sit on it because the feels were too great and I didn’t even know where to start. So I’ve been carrying this book around with me for almost two years now, expecting to be able to write about it any day. I pick it up, read a chapter, put it down. Flip through the pages in the middle. Think about the last story, start crying. Re-read the first story, start crying. And still I couldn’t find a way to talk about it. Maybe I still don’t know how? But I do know that I want to talk about it, and that it needs to be talked about, so please accept my imperfect offering here.
The book is a collection of intertwined stories or maybe loosely connected chapters in the same story. It’s kind of hard to say which. Thematically, they all live in the same place, which is girls and where they’re at and where they’re going. The first chapter “Shinro” starts with girls in class filling out their university/future plans survey while their teacher tells them that school has just been practice for the real world. Their lives actually start once they take off those uniforms. Which leads our hero to dash out of the classroom in a panic since she has been told by the world around her that her only worth comes from that uniform. She races past word balloons exhorting her to increase her “womanliness”, be loved; telling her that she’s an old lady when she hits twenty; reminding her of her happiness as a woman. She gets catcalled by a group a guys as she wonders what what value she has outside of this uniform she wears, tears filling her eyes and streaming down her face. It’s a lot.
Torikai tells this tale in two-page spreads, with panels running all the way across for a cinematic feel. And like all the chapters in this story, the whole thing is sketched in pencils, right down to the text on the page, giving the reader an organic feel, a roughness that invites intimacy and empathy. Certain details she sketches out fully, while she scribbles shading in backgrounds and objects. I’ve never seen a book done entirely in pencils like this, and it has a very human effect. The work feels closer somehow, like you’re getting a peek at an unfinished manuscript with all the rough edges there for you to admire. But Torikai is a master, so of course, there’s actually nothing rough about it.
The other chapters similarly follow high school girls through random and/or important moments in their lives. In “Sore ga Koi”, the protagonist is in love with a boy who is in love with another girl. She confronts the girl—she wants to be her. She feels like she can’t breathe with her in the room. And the other girl asks her why with a kiss. The hero of “Futsu” is a girl trying to be like all the other girls, do the normal things. Have the right things, eat the right thing at McDonald’s, go on the right “compensated date” to earn the money for the right bag. Girl meets boy in “Niji no Kanata”, and it’s the sweetest chapter in the book. Letting her guard down as she talks with the boy, the girl sees the world in new colour. The final chapter “Daijobu?” asks if the girls are actually all right and turns their world upside down so that it can be remade in a new place with a new perspective.
But it’s the last story that haunts me, a short that’s unconnected with the previous chapters. “Onisan Kochira” is all blacks and whites, cleanly inked, unlike the pencilled pages of the rest of the book. It starts with the protagonist Lila “playing Ophelia” in a swamp, posing like the painting, so you get an idea of where you’re headed here. Lila wonders why it’s only women who are taken by the demon, where exactly the demon comes from anyway, as she explains that all the adults tell her and her other friends on the cusp to puberty to be careful. Be careful the demon doesn’t take you. The women taken by demons forget themselves, drive men mad. And it just reads to me like such a condemnation of rape culture and the way women are told not to get raped rather than anyone telling men not to rape. And the way women are so often not believed and vilified when they are raped and they dare to tell their stories. It’s told very much like a fairy tale, with this ethereal other-worldness.
The book itself is so beautiful, a slender hardcover number in a larger format that highlights Torikai’s incredible art and skill on the page. It’s one of those books that is a pleasure to simply hold in your hand. Although art-wise, the two manga artists are in different places, the lyricality and poetic sensibility on display here reminds me of the work of Saho Tono. And now I want to read a conversation between these two artists. I feel like they would have a lot to say to each other.