Thursday, March 24, 2005


Today's manga is Monokage ni ashibyoushi (the official English title is "Stepping in My Shelter"; a literal translation would be "beating time with my foot from in hiding"), a four-volume series by Shungicu Uchida, who is very popular in Japan both as a manga creator and a novelist. I wrote a little about Uchida in general here (Mar. 9), and reviewed her manga Minami's Girlfriend here (Mar. 23). While Minami was about a girl who had shrunk to a few inches high, Stepping, like nearly all of Uchida's other works that I've seen (as far as I can tell) has no fantasy elements. It's a realistic story of a high school girl, based to some extent (as far as I can tell from Uchida's somewhat rambling afterwords) on the author's own adolescence.

Midori, the protagonist, is not a delinquent or obviously "in trouble," but she is clearly not happy. As the series begins, her parents are dead and she is living with her older brother and his wife. The wife openly dislikes Midori, who reciprocates the sentiment. The brother defends Midori against his wife, but Midori is emotionally distant from him too. Early in the series Midori acquires a boyfriend, whom she sleeps with: not out of passion, though, but in order to be close to another person. She has no interests and no plans for the future; the only time she's happy is when she's lying down alone in the school's sickroom.

There is not a lot of plot in the series, though there is some; rather, it straightforwardly depicts Midori's life over a number of months, a life that is largely undramatic. Nothing really good happens to Midori; and while she endures some traumatic events, there is no climactic disaster. By the end of the series she has apparently matured somewhat, but again there is no big dramatic event signalling this.

The subject matter, and the tone of the writing, are not too dissimilar from Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, and Adrian Tomine, who have reputations for being "cold" and "depressing." I don't know if or where the series was originally serialized, but presumably it was published as a commercial proposition; yet Uchida does nothing to "cute it up." But the emotional impression left by Stepping is quite different from that of these creators' works in general, mainly because of the art. These three artists tend to view their characters coolly and analytically, and this is reflected in the visual depictions of these characters. But Uchida makes Midori's eyes large and liquid, and engage the reader's sympathy, even though they are usually blank of expression. Nor is Uchida's line cold and clinical like those of Ware, Clowes, and Tomine.

I said Midori's eyes are large, and they are large compared to Western comics. But they aren't as exaggeratedly large as the typical shoujo heroine's. Nor does Uchida use the symbolism, or complicated panel breakdowns, characteristic of shoujo. Her visual storytelling, like her writing, is plain and straightforward.

I talked about the series when I first bought it, over a year ago (Jan. 28), and quoted the English text from the cover of vol. 4. (Each volume has such a text on the cover, though there is no English inside.) Not having read the series, I surmised that it was a "ladies' sex comic," but I was wrong. There is a lot of nudity, and a number of sex scenes, but none of this is erotic. It's just part of Midori's life, and a not very satisfactory part at that.

Stepping in My Shelter isn't for everyone, as the description above should make clear. Midori isn't an immediately likeable character, and some aspects of her are still opaque to me after a first reading; if you're looking for the next Fruits Basket or Hot Gimmick, you won't find it here. (Not to denigrate either of those series.) But for unvarnished realism about an adolescent girl's life, I've rarely seen it bettered.

The series was first published, or first appeared in book form (I'm not sure which) between 1988 and 1991, but the edition I have is from ca. 2002. (I can't find the exact dates of publication). It's a so-called bunko (library) edition, which means that the pages are smaller than those of the average Japanese-language manga paperback; and, as with most of Uchida's works, in the Japanese bookstores I've been to it would be shelved in the literature section, rather than the manga section. Each volume has an afterword by Uchida, written for these new editions, and the fourth volume also has an afterword by the popular Japanese novelist Banana Yoshimoto. The publisher is Kadokawa Shoten, each volume has a list price of 476 yen, and the ISBNs are 4-04-344412-5, 4-04-344413-3, 4-04-344414-1, and 4-04-344415-X.

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