Tuesday, March 23, 2004


I've mentioned Minami kun no koibito ("Minami's Girlfriend") by Shungicu Uchida before, and now I've finally read it. Minami, the protagonist, is an ordinary high school boy whose girlfriend, Chiyomi, has inexplicably shrunk to a few inches in height. Because Chiyomi can't stand the thought of having to take a medical examination, she insists that Minami keep her condition secret from everyone, including her parents, and she lives secretly inside a doll house in Minami's room. The single-volume manga portrays their everyday life together.

From the subject matter and a superficial scan of the art, I had expected this to be a light-hearted romp, but that's not the case at all. Chiyomi desperately wants her old body back. She's completely dependent upon Minami and, although she doesn't seem to mind this per se, she is unhappy at having to impose upon him. Also, they can't have sex; their substitute is for Minami to masturbate while looking at Chiyomi. For his part, Minami can't help thinking of Chiyomi as a pet or toy, though he tries not to and feels guilty when he does.

Ultimately, the book is quite sad. Chiyomi is a type of girl frequently found in manga and anime: cheerful, optimistic, good-hearted, devoted (if she's in love) but not too bright. Usually, these girls triumph in the end over all obstacles. Minami suggests that in real life, things don't work out so well. The relationship between Minami and Chiyomi is also a metaphor for male-female relationships in general, a point underlined when another girl tells Minami that her boyfriend treats her like a toy. From the book's afterward, and from a brief essay found in a collection of Uchida's essays called Yarare onna no iikata, we learn that she wrote the final chapters of Minami in the aftermath of having broken off relations with her family, in which she had been sexually abused, and this experience influenced the course of the manga.

If this makes it sound like the manga is a strident tract, it's not. Uchida writes with a light touch, which makes the pain and unhappiness even more devastating. Minami himself is a likable character who honestly tries to do the right thing, without being a saint. The manga is nearly all from his perspective, and Uchida does a very good job of writing a convincing teenage boy. Compared to Minami, Chiyomi is a bit too stereotypical to ring true.

The art is looser than the average manga, but expressive. The storytelling is fluent and straightforward, with none of the extravagances of a typical shoujo manga. (A digression: I've seen complaints that reviewers of comics typically focus on the writing, saying little about the art. I agree, and I know I commit this sin myself. I do so for a couple of reasons. I lack the vocabulary to discuss art or visual storytelling--this latter vocabulary scarcely exists, in fact, aside from terms borrowed from film, but that's a matter for another post. And even if I had the vocabulary, people wouldn't know what I was talking about without illustrations; but I lack a scanner, and realistically few if any of my readers will be able to examine the manga itself.)

In summary, this is a very good manga, and if it were published here, it would outclass at least ninety percent of alternative comics. I'm looking forward to reading more works by Uchida.

The edition I have is a revised edition, but I don't know how the revision differs from the original (though I gather from the essay mentioned above that the ending is the same). It's published by Bunshun Bunko, the ISBN is 4-16-726706-3, and the price is 590 yen. If you have access to a Japanese used bookstore, though, it's worth checking there, as it's a popular book; remember to check the fiction section as well as the manga section.

Incidentally, this book bears out what I said a couple weeks ago about not being scared of kanji without furigana. The Japanese-language manga I read immediately before this one was vol. 3 of Fruits Basket. Even though Fruits Basket has furigana throughout, whereas Minami doesn't, Minami was much easier to read than Fruits Basket. The main difficulty in reading Japanese is not attaching meanings to words, provided you have a good dictionary and character dictionary; it's understanding how the words fit together in a sentence. What makes this difficult is primarily the fondness of Japanese writers, including manga writers, for long, complex sentences with several relative clauses. (Specific features of the Japanese language and Japanese writing make such sentences particularly difficult to decipher.) And for whatever reason, perhaps because the characters in Minami are less introspective, such sentences are much less common in Minami than in Fruits Basket.

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