Friends, it has been a month! And there are still two more weeks of April to get through. I might not make it, to be honest. We’re over a year into this pandemic and the online-ification of all events, so really, I should have seen this coming. And yet much like I am taken off guard every normal year by the arrival of May and the season of the festival that is TCAF, I was caught unawares by April and the need to prep all things TCAF for release during the actual festival. So the past few weeks have been a flurry of emails and time zone calculations and recording sessions on top of my usual deadlines and translation work. And because the manga industry is booming these days, I have had more translation work coming across my desk (not a complaint!), so I am now basically a husk of the person I was once. Just picture a desiccated corpse Junji Ito-style somehow still alive enough to type these words.
So you can see how I would want some comfort reading to soothe my frazzled soul and keep my thoughts from straying back to all my deadlines and why did I take on so many projects for the month of April is this the end for me oh no oh no. Normally, I would dig into an old favourite like Itoshii no Nekokke, but Mount Bookstoberead grows ever taller, so I figured I should at least check if there was anything in there that could serve as a comfort read. Lucky for me, Hotai Shojo Kikan was near the top of the pile, and while the cover and title promised bandages and injury, it’s a yuri book, so I knew I was at least guaranteed some poignant moments of love to accompany whatever trauma lay in its pages. Plus, I really enjoyed Sudo’s more recent rewind of a love story, Yume no Hashibashi, and was ready to happily devour more of her work.
Hotai is only bandages and injury as a sort of set dressing. The damage has already happened when we meet Juri and Nami over summer vacation in high school. Nami is all cast and crutches after an unexplained fall when she invites classmate Juri to her house. This comes as a surprise to Juri since the two girls have hardly spoken before, but intrigued, she goes anyway, and they end up having a secret summer affair of glances and blushes and shy words. Because there are no sexy times in this collection of stories, only the first bloom of possible romance.
Which is not to say all its protagonists are as innocent as these high school girls. But their stories all share similar moments of connection and revelation. “Neya Monogatari” has university student and chronic borrower-from-friends Tatsuki forced into the strange job of sleeping over at a rich girl’s house. “Suzu” is a sweet tale of love at first sight—on one side of the equation anyway—between university students, one of whom reads print newspapers obsessively, which is so strangely endearing to me.
Other stories are less sweet. “Koori no Heya” shows us a very bossy bitch who doesn’t really care about anyone despite her chosen career as a nurse. Yuki demands her former classmate Miho come to her house and take care of her while she skips out on work for a week, pretending to have the flu. It turns out she has another reason for trying to hide out in her apartment, and the moment of true connection between them comes when Miho realizes just what that reason is. “Sotsugyo Ryoko” is a teacher-student thing, and this one is honestly sweet and so vulnerable and open, despite the teacher being kind of a player, hot for student for many years. I actually hate this kind of story because it’s not so much a fantasy as it is a normal way of starting a relationship in Japan, even in this day and age. Too many teachers get involved with students, and then come out in the open and get married once the student graduates. (At least one of my former colleagues is just such a teacher.) But Sudo portrays it so sweetly and gives the teacher a moment of revelation, a breakthrough understanding of how empty these years of chasing students have been, that I’m actually on board here.
“Hari to Ito” features childhood friends Nanao and Kei, all grown up now. Nanao is kind of a disaster, always bailed out by Kei, and when she is out of a job, fashion designer Kei hires her to make patterns for her designs. Having long ago realized that she is actually in love with her friend, Nanao is thrilled to simply be near Kei every day. But Kei wants more and pushes Nanao to be a better, stronger person. I liked this particular story a lot not just because of the sewing references, although you know I always love that, but because of how each woman brings own strengths to their relationship and they push each other to be better than they were the day before, even when they would rather maintain the status quo.
The strangest and saddest story in the collection is “Onegai”, about a girl who wakes up in her school uniform in an empty bathtub and flashes back to various moments in her relationship with her girlfriend until she comes to a painful realization about who she is and what’s actually going on. I honestly did not see the twist in this one coming, and it felt like a knife in the gut.
Sudo’s lines are neat and clean, and her pacing hits all the right notes. There’s a sameness to her character design, though, which is unfortunate. With this many characters, I would have loved to see a variety of bodies and faces, but the only real variation is the serious height difference between Kei and Nanao. Hairstyles are different, but for the most part, faces are almost interchangeable, and bodies are all skinny and identically proportioned. The faces and bodies are pleasing to look at, but I do wish Sudo could have brought a little more variety to this volume.
Still, this is a book full of women connecting with women with glimpses of romance and possible futures which is what I needed in a comfort read. In the middle of a neverending pandemic, seeing possible futures is so healing and a reminder that we too have possibilities ahead of us. They’re just a little hard to see right now.