Since they launched a few years ago, Torch has consistently put out the strangest manga, the stuff that more mainstream publishers with their print magazines generally wouldn’t touch. I think part of this is that Torch is entirely online, which definitely allows for more experimentation. They don’t have the added cost of putting out a print magazine every month, and they’re not obligated to put out a book of every series they run on the site. Plus I think readers expect very different things from manga online versus manga in traditional print magazines. Weird things come from weird corners of the internet, and readers of online manga maybe not only know this but actively seek it out. Torch might be tapping into that group of readers that has felt underserved by the usual manga outlets, and so they welcome the wild and weird to their (web) pages.
Whatever the reason, I will always at least pick up a Torch book and judge it by its cover. They brought me personal faves like Magician A (available in English now! /shameless plug) and Kashikokute Yuki Aru Kodomo (please hire me to translate this into English! /shameless plea), and while not all their books meet these admittedly high standards, I’ve at least enjoyed everything I’ve read from them enough to check out their latest releases. Which is why I can’t understand how I missed Battan’s first release and am only discovering their sensuous lines and cat-eyed girls in their second book, this collection of five short stories. Rest assured, I am working to rectify this situation and have ordered everything else they’ve released, including a new series running in Kiss, which looks very yuri and I’m going to be disappointed if those hot girls on the cover do not make out at some point.
Mabataki is also all about girls, although no explicit girl-on-girl action. But all of them are about love in their own, occasionally heartbreaking, way. The first story “Anteros no Kyujitsu” has the old woman at an old-school tobacco shop mistaking protagonist Hajime for another girl named Makie. For reasons unclear even to herself, Hajime goes along with it and ends up in a strange relationship with the old woman, who foists packs of cigarettes on her while she serves her tea. Hajime keeps going back to try and pay for the cigarettes, but every time she does, the old woman refuses her money and sucks her into conversation once more, holding Hajime’s hands the whole time. In the meantime, Hajime meets a guy and starts dating him, but it’s only through her relationship with the old woman that she comes to understand the importance and ephemerality of love. I absolutely cried reading this one, and even if the other stories turned out to be garbage, this one alone was worth the price of the book.
Fortunately, the other stories are equally great and thoughtful in subtle ways, and Battan has the visual story-telling skills I would expect from a much more experienced artist. Plus their art is so dreamy! It’s a perfect combination of two things I really love: clean lines and subtle movement. The hair in this volume alone makes me swoon. It’s like Noda Ayako’s blushy cheeks, just this perfect thing done perfectly well that gives character and expression to every single scene. And their art reminds me so much of some other artist I have known and loved, but I can’t quite pin that down, like a name on the tip of my tongue. So that’s driving me up the wall.
“Shoka no Soshiki” opens with Kayo at her mother’s funeral. She spends the rest of the story wondering what exactly that means, carrying one of her mother’s bones around in her a baggie in her pocket (less gruesome than it sounds since you generally cremate the dead in Japan and then use chopsticks to move their bones to an urn anyway, might as well just ask for one to have), and Battan depicts all these questions as handwritten bubbles that just follow Kayo around for the length of the story, an excellent device that really captures how pervasive and heavy these kinds of thoughts can be. Plus there is a class weirdo and she is very cute even as she asks Kayo to come bury a dead bird with her.
A couple of the stories step into the realm of the fantastical. “Saraba Ningen” has vampires! But they mostly seem nice enough. It’s actually the humans who are pretty awful, setting up a whole racist system that blames everything wrong with society on vampires. It’s a bit heavy-handed as a metaphor for racism and societal injustice, but fortunately, the relationship that develops between human Kitsune and vampire Monika is sweet as hell and makes the whole thing worth reading. They even get an bonus epilogue that digs a little deeper into their friendship and life together.
“Ningyohime” is another fantasy story, based on “The Little Mermaid” and set in what I swear is Atami with its Sun Beach, famed himono (which I always told people not get because they are drying that fish right there next to the road with all the cars and the pollution just spewing all over those fish on the drying racks), and many onsens. But as far as I know the only famous statue in Atami is that one of Kanichi and Omiya, and this story very much revolves around a statue of the little mermaid. Chie goes on a solo trip after breaking up with her boyfriend and meets Erika, a bubbly woman who is also getting over a heartbreak. They go drinking together and on their way to another bar, they come across the little mermaid statue and things get weird.
I loved every single page of this book and can’t wait for the rest of Battan’s work to cross the ocean via small packet post so I can shovel it into my eyeballs. It’s always so exciting when you find a new artist to love and get all dreamy-eyed about. Almost like having a new crush, except none of the agonizing about whether your crush likes you back and how can you get them to like you back and maybe you should ask them out but would that be weird. It’s just you and the books and the one-sided perfection of them.