Monday, January 31, 2005


Once again, it's been a long time since I've done one of these. This time, though, I have a good excuse, at least in part: I've been reading the six-volume manga Inu ("Dog") by Haruko Kashiwagi. This manga, which was serialized in the seinen (young men's) manga magazine Young Sunday, could perhaps be best described as a romantic comedy with a lot of sex. Note two things: Kashiwagi is a woman, and Young Sunday is a mainstream commercial magazine, not underground or even alternative. The relevance of these facts will be clearer later.

Takagi, the female lead, is a college student with a powerful sex drive and sexual fantasies that tend towards the mildly kinky. However, she tries to keep her sexual feelings and romantic feelings rigidly separate, and to avoid fantasizing about the college boys she falls in love with. Unsurprisingly, these boys don't share her scruples; but unfortunately for her, they all turn out to be poor lovers. So to quench her sexual desires, she turns to Nakajima, the male lead. Nakajima, a fellow student, is pudgy and wears glasses, and thus far from her romantic ideal in appearance. But he's good at oral sex, and keeps cropping up in her sexual fantasies.

Nakajima, for his part, is in love with Takagi, and persuades himself that she loves him; but can't help noticing that she only takes an interest in him when she wants sex. In fact, Takagi doesn't think of Nakajima romantically at all, and has no idea that he's in love with her. This state of mutual misunderstanding continues throughout much of the series.

Though some of the plot developments seem contrived (and the extent of Takagi's unawareness of Nakajima's emotions is occasionally hard to believe), the characters come across as realistic adolescents. Adding realism, but departing from romantic-comedy formula, neither Takagi nor Nakajima is wholly sympathetic. Takagi is simply using Nakajima for her own gratification, and is really insensitive to his feelings. Thus, it seems at first that Nakajima is the good guy, but a couple of his acts make it impossible to sympathize completely with him. Still, both Takagi and Nakajima are somehow likeable. For much of the series, I was dreading the blow that Nakajima would suffer when he realized that Takagi had no romantic interest in him. When this realization did, inevitably, dawn, the consequences were indeed excruciating, though in a way I had not anticipated.

As mentioned above, there is a lot of sex in this manga. But that doesn't put it into the category of ero-comics. For one thing, the sex isn't depicted in the blow-by-blow fashion of pornography. For another, most of the sex in the series is unsatisfactory to at least one of the participants, including a realistically depicted date rape scene.

Now comes the tricky bit (as Basil Fawlty once said). As the series opens, Takagi's dog has just died. She is distressed by this, not just because she loved it, but because (there is no delicate way to say this) she had trained it to go down on her. In fact, much of the first volume is devoted to her quest for a method of masturbation that will be as satisfying as her dog was; and it's her failure at this quest that forces her to seek out Nakajima. What's even more unusual is that Takagi is not depicted as sick or perverted: her relationship with her dog is presented as no more abnormal than, say, masturbating with a vacuum cleaner (which Takagi also attempts, with unsatisfactory results).

The art is fine, though not particularly exciting. Kashigawi's human figures are less conventionalized than is usual in manga: character's faces are more rounded, and Takagi does not have the exaggeratedly tiny waist of many manga heroines. Kashiwagi's line is also thicker than is usual for manga. Perhaps the nicest thing about the art is the front covers of each volume, which are Art Nouveau-influenced and very attractive. (For samples of Kashiwagi's art in another series, see the link below.)

Of all the manga I've reviewed so far, this one definitely has the least chance of being licensed; in fact, I can't imagine it being licensed anytime in the near or middle future. And that's a shame. I'm not claiming the work can rank with Acme Novelty Library: its aim is entertainment, and it's contrived at times, as I said above. But it combines emotional realism and craft in a way that the best commercial manga published in the U.S. do, but that our homegrown comics rarely seem able to. And I have rarely seen a female protagonist (excluding those who are basically male fantasies) so single-mindedly focused on her own sexual pleasure, in or out of comics.

I own, though I haven't read, one volume each from two other series by Kashiwagi. One, Yoiko no Hoshi! ("Yoiko's Star"), from the volume I own (vol. 2) appears to be a straightforward series about elementary school children, even though it was serialized in Young Sunday, the magazine which serialized Inu. The other, Bra Bra Ban Ban, also serialized in Young Sunday, appears to be a comedy about a female college-age French horn (I think) player. The title seems to be an allusion to the protagonist's breasts, which are large, and play a significant role in the action.

I don't own any volumes of Kashiwagi's fourth (and most recent, as far as I know) series, Hanazono Merry Go Round ("Flower Garden Merry Go Round"), but Chris Vaillancourt provided me with a link to a review of the series, unfortunately in German, but with samples of art, which is pretty close in style to the art of Inu. The series is about a young man who finds himself stranded in a small, Twilight Zone-ish village where it's customary for middle-aged women to have sex with young men passing through, such as himself. According to the review, though, it's not pornography.

Inu is published by Shogakukan. Each volume is about two hundred pages long, and costs 500 yen. The ISBNs are:

vol. 1: 4-09-151641-6
vol. 2: 4-09-151642-4
vol. 3: 4-09-151643-2
vol. 4: 4-09-151644-0
vol. 5: 4-09-151645-9
vol. 6: 4-09-151646-7

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