Today I offer you some wonderful, quirky, weird, awkward, moving, and delightful manga by Tomoko Yamashita. She writes these charming, messed-up characters, struggling into and out of relationships, trying to make real connections and often failing…and you should just totally go read her stuff if you like that kind of thing, because she is terrific.
For example, Mud. Mud is a one-shot, the manga equivalent of a short story, about a very intelligent high-school girl who is bored, bored, BORED with her life. She longs to feel something, to feel passionately. She longs for something to happen. To entertain herself, she has hilarious and bizarre fantasies, usually about the death of everyone around her. She is a terrific character. She does have a lukewarm crush on her cram school teacher, but wonders if real love might wake her up. Meanwhile, she murders everyone around her in her mind, just for something to do.
All of this changes when she “accidentally” sees some text messages on her teacher’s phone revealing that he fantasizes about being dominated sexually by a girl. BDSM stuff. She is amazed and inspired by this non-boring revelation. Our milquetoast cram school teacher is not so milquetoast after all! “I think I could become the kind of girl you like,” she says. Thus begins their bizarre and fascinating relationship, the girl cooly dominating the adult who is helpless before her confidence.
Always, the best is how she sees the world. For example, this moment when he realizes he really has feelings for her…
…and his heart explodes out of his chest.
I highly recommend this story! Unfortunately it is not licensed in English, so all we have is the scan for now. But it’s well worth seeking out. Smart, interesting characters like this don’t come around all that often.
Next, take a look at Dining Bar Akira. I heart stories that take place in restaurants—the kitchen staff, the waits, the insanity. Probably because I spent several years doing short order for an assortment of restaurants in my twenties. Restaurant people are a breed apart, night people, freaks, drinkers, at least that was my experience, haha, ahem.
Dining Bar Akira handily captures that feeling of the high-speed chaos of a working kitchen, plus the funny relationships that spring up between co-workrs who can feel a bit like your trench buddies when the place gets slammed. It is in this setting that we meet Akira, the manager, and Torihara, a part-time cook who has feelings for Akira, much to Akira’s comic dismay. Akira is funny, dramatic, straight, open-hearted, honest, upbeat, funny, did I mention funny, and the older of the two at 32. Torihara is cynical, smart, perceptive, straightforward, gay, brave, dark, and younger, at 26. In four chapters we get the story of their coming together in smart, emotionally too-true comic fashion that I found extremely enjoyable. I love how they each deal with their insecurities and fears, as well as real concerns, often in absurd and comic ways (especially Akira), punctuated by moments of real connection. And I enjoyed how they do this surrounded by a cast of waitresses, cooks, childhood friends of Akira, and Maki, the owner, who has known Akira for twenty years. It’s a great story! With wonderful comic timing. Really, this one hit all the right notes for me—it’s so lovely to get great comedy AND emotional truth in equal perfection. Highly recommended, and it’s licensed, so you can get your very own copy.
On the other hand, Tomoko Yamashita doesn’t, for me, hit the ball out of the park with everything she does. Some of her stories, in English anyway, fail to connect with me. Some of her characters are so muddling, speaking in phrases and at cross-purposes to themselves, that I either can’t care deeply or I just can’t figure out what they are feeling enough to understand the story. For example, the stories in Yes, It’s Me suffered from this, as did Koi no Hanashi ga Shitai, a one volume work. I can’t help but wonder if some of this may be translation issues. So many false-start sentences in the dialogue that don’t add up to something comprehensible…Japanese is often spoken in what, in English, would be considered stripped down fragments. I wonder if the translator for that bunch of stories tended to translate more literally, leaving out the bits that are implied in the Japanese, but are needed for clarity in the English? Just a theory.
This was NOT a problem with the stories in Illumination. Mature, realistic, complex, sometimes painful. It starts with the title story, Illumination, a three chapter love triangle between broken people, three men who can’t seem to connect. Such likable characters even as they struggle, and then bam, the last page kind of rips your heart out. Roses, Thorns and a Shattering Clang is another love triangle, a girl and a boy both in love with the same guy—who is bullying the quiet in-love boy until the girl starts helping him out and the rivals-in-love become allies. Pow, that last panel goes straight through me. About Him is about a young man who jokingly makes a list of people to “invite to my funeral”…and then dies in a sudden accident. Those people are invited and…again, pow, right in my heart. Actually, that’s probably the common factor in all of these, an ability of each story to snap my heart open in a surprising move at the end. You know, when something poignant is revealed and tears pop into your eyes so suddenly it takes you by surprise? Like, boom, I’m crying, how did that happen? Almost all of these stories do this for me. Rare! Do you know how hard that is to pull off??? Highly recommended.
A few other Yamashita stories from other collection that stand out to me, Stars Spica Spectre (in Touch Me Again) is a moving story about a young man haunted by the lost ghost of someone he once bullied. Spooky and strange and sad. And Don’t Cry Girl is a hilarious story about a high school girl who ends up staying with a friend of her father…who happens to be a bit of a nudist. Think Austin Powers with the fruit that is always just in the way of his boy bits…? A little rocky on the dismount for me, still this story made me laugh out loud multiple times and was quite enjoyable, even though the ending did quite land.
I wish more of Yamashita’s stuff was translated! There are some titles that look really good but are nowhere available in English.
You see why I have to learn Japanese?