This is one of those books that chased me around the city until I finally gave in and bought it, much like Harada’s Color Recipe. I’d seen it online and it won a Japan Media Arts Festival (there’s a great talk event for that here), but it only really started passive-aggressively hassling me when the third volume came out in the middle of December. Suddenly, it was everywhere! There were big displays in even my shitty local depato bookstore that generally only carries Shonen Jump titles. But neither the title nor the cover art appealed to me, and we all know that I judge books by their covers. Not to mention that I already had a stack of books as tall as me to read after finally being allowed back into the country for the first time in nearly three years. And I am nothing if not contrary, so I steadfastly refused to even pick up a copy and read the back cover.
But then! Yes, something changed. That is how stories like this go. Otherwise, we would not be here on the precipice of discussing the very book I so obstinately rejected for so long. And that something was: I went to a meeting. This may not sound like so significant of a something, but you have to remember that not only are books my hobby, they are also my job. So my meetings are about books with other people who make books. And these people are generally also passionate about books. This isn’t a line of work you get into to get rich quick (or ever).
So they’re recommending all these books to me in this meeting, and I have not only already read their suggestions, but totally loved them. Which is why I groaned in my head when they slid a copy of Onna no Sono no Hoshi toward me. Now I would have to read the series. It had caught me at long last.
I continued to have doubts, even as I started in on the first volume. The premise of a teacher at a girls’ high school wasn’t particularly interesting to me, but the sheer absurdity of it quickly won me over. The first chapter revolves around a game of pictorial shiritori played in the pages of the class logbook, and the titular Hoshi is stumped by that day’s entry, which is in fact a drawing of himself. His reactions and thought process are honestly perfection and ring so, so true. The second chapter has a dog with eyebrows living at school and a mysterious, possibly drunk teacher. I didn’t know I wanted this until I read it.
But it was the third chapter that sealed the deal for me. Hoshi and his colleague Kobayashi read the manga of one of Hoshi’s students, and Hoshi offers suggestions on how to make the story better. A large part of this chapter is Hoshi and Kobayashi reacting to what they’re reading, and those reactions are so perfect, I am in total awe of Wayama. (What makes this chapter even more amazing is that Wayama apparently had her mother draw the student’s manga. This woman understands her craft and comedy in a deep way.) She has created a manga that has not one, but two stories involving insects on shoulders.
Reaction shots are really what put this manga over the top. Wayama manages to draw the most subtle of shifts in the facial expressions of her characters, so that I was cracking up on the train. (Do not read this book on the train. The obi of the third volume explicitly states that this manga is too funny to read on the train.) I don’t know if I’ve ever read a manga artist with a better sense of comedic timing.
She also has a masterful understanding of exactly how comics work and uses framing, camera angle, and panels to portray her surreal and yet utterly everyday scenarios. She also does interesting things like place dialogue balloons in the background of objects in the foreground, use empty space like windows as a frame for narration, and connect several panels with one word balloon from the same speaker reaching across gutters. Basically, Wayama is messing around with some really fascinating technical aspects of comics while also having a blast making jokes and just being ridiculous. Her art is somehow realistic and hyperbolic at the same time. No, I don’t understand it either. I simply enjoy and accept.
I’ve worked at a couple girls’ high schools, and I’ve seen Hoshi’s dead eyes in some of my former colleagues. He is a teacher who has seen things. I also recognize the girls in this series, the way they move, the way they speak, the incomprehensible things they do. Wayama captures them so honestly, while also highlighting how hilarious teenage girls can be. None of my students ever made sparkly stickers of me and inadvertently turned me into an urban legend or obsessively kept a diary about me (as far as I know), but I did have a student who brought me J-pop CDs every day and kept a detailed record of which ones I did and did not like, and another who started mass-producing her own Archie comics after I introduced the franchise to my class. The kids are both immensely weird and entirely all right.