I think I’m on record as not particularly loving the bunko format for manga, but especially classic manga, which is generally a whole lot busier than the modern stuff. And by busy, I mean visually dense. Twenty different bits of dialogue or narration or sound effects versus ten in a more recent book. (I count bits of text for a living as a translator, so yes, this spills over into my reading habits. I can’t help but notice the number of panels on a page even if it’s not a book I’m translating.) This is a lot to take in on the standard manga page, but it starts to put serious strain on ye olde eyeballs when it is reduced to an even smaller page size. If I had my way, all classic manga would be published in beautiful oversized perfect versions, like Yamagishi’s Arabesque.
But alas! I do not control the publishing industry on either side of the ocean, and so if I want to read the older shojo that my heart cries out for, I am generally forced to pick up the bunko version. Unless I can get on Yahoo Auctions and find the volumes from back in the day when the book was first published. (These are more available than you would think! I’ve read half of Ichijo Yukari’s catalogue by picking up old copies on Yahoo.) But being trapped outside of Japan (and staring down another Toronto winter) (*shudder*), auctions are a bit tricky since most sellers won’t ship outside of Japan. And so I turn to what is available in (online) stores currently. Which is, of course, the bunko version.
But maybe my new glasses are doing the trick? Ichigo was an easier read than other recent bunkos with far less squinting and bringing the page to a centimetre away from my nose. Or maybe it is just that Oshima is such a powerful storyteller that she surpasses the bunko format. Her words cannot be contained by its tiny pages! This is the person who made me appreciate anthropomorphic cats in manga, a real feat since I am pretty against animal-people in my reading material. (So many interesting BL plots ruined by a guy with cat ears or a wolf tail.)
Ichigo is about people, though, just regular people with regular ears. The titular Ichigo is a half-Japanese teenager from Lappland of all places. The Swedish province, not the top half of Finland. I’ve always associated Lapland with Finland, so it was a bit confusing to me that Ichigo peppers her speech with Swedish, a language I speak, instead of Finnish, a language I do not. But apparently that extra “p” makes all the difference? Her cries of “förlåt” and “tack” definitely threw me off.
Aaaaanyway, Ichigo decides to go to Japan, a country she has never been to, after the death of her Japanese father in order to marry Rinataro, who came backbacking through Lappland one summer and that was enough for Ichigo to fall in eternal love apparently. So we start with her on a train that is about to depart, saying goodbye to everyone and everything she has ever known to cross a literal continent and an ocean to reach the port of Yokohama. Somehow, she manages to spit out Rintaro Ikuta’s name until she finds someone who knows who she’s talking about and takes her to the Ikuta house. And so the drama begins!
Rintaro is stunned by Ichigo’s arrival, as anyone would be at someone they met once on a different continent showing up on their doorstep and declaring their intention to be their lawfully wedded wife. Rintaro and his family—writer father and gloriously be-maned older brother Shintaro—immediately put together a plan to send Ichigo back to Sweden, but that falls apart because of money (the reason why so many things fall apart), and so Ichigo ends up staying as a member of the Ikuta family. But definitely not as Rintaro’s wife because he is still in high school and she seems to not actually understand what marriage really is.
This is my one big complaint about this book, the impossible naïveté of Ichigo. Okay, fine, she was raised by nomads in northern Sweden. But I’m pretty sure even nomads in the wild northern tundra know the difference between sex and sleeping (a point of great confusion between Ichigo and her Japanese family and friends). And how do you navigate all those trains and boats without having at least a modicum of common sense and an ability to navigate this world? The character of Ichigo strains credulity in so many ways, and I can only assume that Oshima was counting on the whole “she’s a foreigner” thing to get readers to accept some of the more bizarre bits of Ichigo’s story. But reading this as a foreigner over forty years after it was written, well, let’s just say this excuse doesn’t really hold up and makes for an occasionally frustrating read.
That said, though, Ichigo is adorable as hell, and her energy propels the reader through this story, even when it seems absurd or implausible or flat-out contradictory. She has the same fluffy/curly hair as the cat protagonist of Wata no Kuni, something Oshima herself notes in the afterword as she wonders if perhaps her characters are just constantly reincarnated into her different stories. So even as I had question marks over my head sometimes, I was still one hundred percent invested in Ichigo’s journey and her attempt to make a life and a place for herself in her father’s homeland. Until the very end when I said, aloud to my empty apartment, “What the fuck?”
Oshima brings extra drama to this one, and it’s very much not the drama the entire story had led me to expect. Which, okay, surprise ending? But it felt like her editor told her that this wandering tale had gone on long enough and she should wrap it up in the next issue of the magazine. That, or she got bored with continuing. The whole story has a similarly unplanned quality to it, like she had the basic structure of fish-out-of-water Ichigo and simply went along with whatever idea occurred to her as she was drawing. Which might sound harsh, but honestly, it’s the best kind of shojo drama because you never see what’s coming up around the corner.