by Erica Sakurazawa
published by Tokyopop
(This overview was originally published in The Comics Journal #269.)
Earlier this year, Tokyopop announced a promotional push called “Manga After Hours”, an attempt to market some of their more mature female-oriented titles to “chick lit” buyers. Some of the first titles in this line are the works of Erica Sakurazawa.
From 2003 to early 2004, six of her books were released. Although manga publishers do cross-promote based on creators — a recent volume of Maison Ikkoku shipped with a sticker attached reading “from the creator of Inu-Yasha” — this series is unusual in being connected solely by the artist and titled with her name instead of featuring continuing characters or storylines.
Marked for mature readers, these are not shôjo (girl-oriented) titles. They’re josei, manga for twenty-something women, and their push indicates a desire both to reach a new audience and to continue providing current readers with material of interest as they grow up.
Apparently, there’s a rule that says that any story about adult women that doesn’t shy away from the physical side of romance must be compared to Sex in the City. There is sex in these books, and they do take place in the city, but the mood and approach are nothing similar. A customer looking for a hot read would do better to look elsewhere.
The nudity is matter-of-fact realism instead of nipple-flashing titillation. A guy stands naked in front of the fridge while his girlfriend sits topless in bed. A woman pulls on an oversized t-shirt after sex. Couples embrace out of need or desire or loneliness.
Many readers became fans of the artist due to her style. Sakurazawa’s delicate line creates a spare page that gives the story room to breathe. As with much other female-oriented manga, the emphasis is on the figures and their expressions, although her work lacks the fussy details and decorations of shôjo. It’s lovely, airy work, even when dealing with more earthy subjects.
Between the Sheets was the first book released, perhaps because of its juicy premise. Minako and Saki are bar-hopping best friends. When an undesirable guy hits on them, they tell him they’re a couple. Their kiss to prove it starts Minako seeing her friend in a new light, although she phrases it to herself as “if I was a guy, I would definitely be in love with her!”
Minako’s the small, cute one, with her unruly short dark hair curling around her face. Saki is the tall, long-haired blonde, the model-like figure that women are supposed to want to look like. Smoking has never looked uglier, with a thick cylinder disturbing the graceful line of Saki’s lips as she’s introduced to the reader.
Minako’s attraction stems from a variety of desires: appreciating Saki’s looks and kissing skill; wanting to be her in many ways; and her uncertainty about Saki’s relationship with her boyfriend Ken. Ken’s nothing special, and yet Minako sees Saki’s personality change when she’s with him. Saki seems more herself, more interesting when they’re just girls together.
Minako’s innocence — friends speculate on whether she’s still a virgin — contrasts with Saki’s casual physicality. Saki’s just this side of uncaring about her boyfriend’s feelings, while Minako speculates that she would worry too much, becoming obsessed over her hypothetical lover. Yet Minako is willing to welcome love between the two of them, while Saki can’t consider life without a man. For all her outer wildness, she’s wired traditionally, making eyes at a guy at a bar just minutes after saying, “The last thing I need right now is a guy.”
The characters glance, touch, stare, talk, look away with just the right moment selected to demonstrate their emotions. Small head shots drive conversation, with larger panels expanding meaningful moments into timeless significance. Sakurazawa captures the day-to-day details of women’s lives; some of her best moments take place in the bathroom while her characters prepare for a night out or clean up afterwards. Dialogue captures the search for the right shade of nail polish or how easily beauty can be faked with makeup techniques.
Minako becomes more aggressive, hitting on guys to drive them away from Saki in order to keep her for herself. Her knowledge of Saki becomes an obstacle, as she reinterprets events to find non-existent evidence for returned feelings. She blames Saki for not loving her back when Saki doesn’t even recognize the extent of Minako’s attraction.
Minako’s internal emotional world begins moving further away from the physical. She’s creating drama for herself when nothing’s visibly changed between the two friends, and her devotion becomes disturbing. The reader senses that the two will never have the same relationship again after the events of this book, and yet, as the story continues, they see what attracts Minako to Saki in spite of her selfishness and shallow fickleness.
Somewhere during the story, what began as innocent friendship turns into a twisted competition, with the women cheating on those they supposedly love for thrills or revenge. Internally, they blame others for their choices in the same way abusers do. Love and caring are divorced from sex. A character collapses when others do to her what she’s been doing thoughtlessly. It’s not whether someone’s having an affair but whether they successfully hide it from their partner.
Sakurazawa’s attitudes, read through this story, are complex but immature, as suits the characters’ time of their lives. Post-adolescence, people are treated as adults even though they don’t know how to be one. They treat sex like a toy, something to be played with without consequence, something to be used as a substitute for the much scarier emotions they don’t have the maturity to handle.
The book ends with the message that life is a process of learning to settle, of making choices that get you close to what you want but can’t have. The reader is left unsettled, just like life.
Next up were two books with the same premise: an angel affects everyday lives. Angel starts with the story of Kato, an ordinary guy who picked up a girl at a bar. She turns out to be an angel who moves in with him. Silent, she exists on Bombay Sapphire gin and lime, and when they kiss, he grows wings, which no one else notices.
This isn’t very subtle symbolism, with an unearthly fantasy figure making a guy feel special in ways shared only between the two, but the added alcohol detail freshens it up. The subject is a good choice for Sakurazawa’s elegant minimalism. At times, it’s reminiscent of the work of CLAMP, especially the Chobits title.
The short chapters are patchworked together, allowing space for the reader’s interpretations and connections. Next comes a suicidal 14-year-old girl with a single working mother. The girl, who resembles Minako, is too afraid to take action but so depressed that she’s even tired of being apathetic.
Dragged along by casually cruel schoolmates, she sees Kato and the angel at the club and is the only one to notice the wings. Her sighting gives her the curiosity she needs to find a purpose in life, if only to know more about the angel. It’s good timing, since jealous girls start picking on her. Her response to becoming an outcast is avoidance, choosing not to attend school.
Her desire to watch the angel becomes more one night when her frustration returns. She meets the angel and is kissed by her. The next day, the angel (carrying her favorite teddy bear) follows her to school. The invisible presence gives her an unexpected strength.
The volume’s episodic nature makes it easy to pause and ponder, or to take a break if the supernatural becomes too gooey. With Sakurazawa’s art style, the glowing spirit angel looks right, but so does the schoolroom full of everyday kids bursting to be more. The angel isn’t a character so much as a lucky charm, hanging around people until they themselves make a difference.
The classically romantic (almost platonic) relationship between Kato and the angel and the story about teen peer pressure make this book feel younger than the previous. The rating has similarly been lowered for the two Angel titles, from Mature to Older Teen (a difference of 2 years, from 18 to 16 as the bottom of the recommended age range).
The third and longest section in the book tells the story of Chi, a girl forced to take care of herself even though she’s too young to do so. Her mother tends to drink too much after her father leaves, so Chi has to get herself ready for nursery school while not disturbing her mother’s hangover.
Chi’s little and cute in her actions and dialogue, trying to be a normal kid and talking about herself in the third person. Her irrepressible urge to share her experiences with neighbors and teachers makes her even more sympathetic. Of course, Chi sees the angel, who follows her home from a convenience store (Mom’s source for purchasing dinner).
The two play in a park under the moon, causing Mom to panic at her disappearance and find new appreciation for the child she previously saw only as a noisy detriment. Sakurazawa makes the tough decision of having the mother be honest about her perception of Chi as a burden she doesn’t want and can’t cope with. It would be easy to build a two-dimensional “bad mom” villain, but her portrayal isn’t that simple. Sakurazawa draws her tired eyes as she shushes Chi while she’s on the phone, calling in absent from work, and her resigned lighting of a cigarette. The angel watches curiously, unseen, this put-upon woman who wound up where she didn’t want to be and doesn’t know how to make it better.
The angel represents a bridge, building connections among people who need to learn how to care for others more than themselves. She can’t be cared for herself, since she appears and disappears unexpectedly, but she starts those she encounters looking outside themselves.
The book ends by returning to Kato, who’s developed a crush on a neighbor with a lost cat. She’s new in town, and he’s the first person to notice her. They work together to find the pet, and Kato is torn between his angel and the new girl.
These stories have the feel of fables, with well-known and familiar morals: It’s better to have one person you can talk to than to seek popularity with false friends. Suicide is never the answer. Raising children is more important than work. You can count on your family, regardless of what happens. Real-life relationships require putting aside fantasies. The endings are reassuring, comforting the reader about the way the world should work.
Angel Nest continues the premise of Angel but focuses on only one story, that of a woman about to be divorced. Natsu gets off work early one day, returns home to surprise her husband of five years, and finds another woman in their bed. He’d previously blamed her work for keeping them apart, deflecting attention from his infidelity and accusing her of his crimes.
His mistress is a former student of his, and he chooses her blasé youth (when caught, his protestations of love for her surprise and displease her, because she was just out for uncomplicated kicks) over Natsu’s more challenging life. His request for a divorce surprisingly doesn’t bother her — she realizes that he’s more of a habit than a lover. Her concern is more over being single again than in losing him.
She finds the angel on her balcony when she can’t sleep and steps outside for a moonlight drink. Convinced she’s dreaming, she goes back to bed, and the angel follows her, hanging around like a stray cat. Complications result when another stray, the husband’s new girlfriend, comes to visit. She’s complaining about him stalking her, and she figures, in a burst of twisted logic, that he’ll never look for her at his ex-wife’s place.
Emi, the girlfriend, can also see the angel but thinks it’s a ghost, so Natsu lets her in to avoid a scene. The girlfriend and the angel resemble each other; both are young blondes with big eyes who attach themselves to Natsu. Both give her something she needs: someone to care for who depends on her goodwill.
Emi stays, cleans, and cooks for them, creating a parody of a traditional family: Natsu the breadwinner, Emi the housewife, and the angel as perfect child. Additional comments on family structure arise when Natsu goes to interview a famous cookbook writer, an up-to-date single mom. It turns out that Emi’s her daughter and the secret recipe creator; Mom can’t cook for beans. Emi is treating Natsu as a surrogate mother, trying to please her with food as well.
Mid-way through the book, the focus switches to Emi’s mother issues as though Sakurazawa didn’t know what else to do with Natsu. Once you’ve created a woman who’s happier out of a relationship and broken up her marriage, there’s a lack of plot points that suggest themselves.
Emi’s lack of involvement with her mother has soured her on a career, so she’s killing time until she can marry and become “an ordinary housewife”. The two women despise the ex-husband for promptly picking up another girlfriend, saying he’s too lonely and scared to be on his own, but they adopted each other fairly quickly as well.
Living with Natsu, Emi gains the strength and understanding to face her real mother again. As in Between the Sheets, Emi created a relationship with a man in order to learn about and spend more time with another woman. (It’s boyfriend as transitive property.) Natsu’s angel was really Emi, because sometimes a silent alcoholic can only teach you so much.
Angel Nest also contains three short stories: God Only Knows, Tea Time, and A Gift from the Heavens. In the first, Tobio is gay and best friends with straight Haru. They’re at a bar, where Tobio tries to pick up a girl for Haru, only for everyone involved to wind up with hurt feelings.
It feels similar to the opening of Between the Sheets, only more abbreviated and with stronger language. Due to the smaller space, the motivations are baldly laid out and somewhat sketchy in believability. Following Sakurazawa’s themes, sex is separate from love and considered a way of getting revenge.
Tea Time follows a woman on vacation by herself after her lover had to work. She wants to take the trip alone to make some decisions, since her relationship is one of habit. The incident is predictable, and the resolution uncertain to the reader.
In the last story, a bored teenager impulsively steals a car, only to find a drunk girl recovering in the back seat. Sakurazawa’s work is better suited to a longer length; she needs the space to build her characters slowly through the reader’s observation. Without living with them for a while, they seem too stereotypical.
Compared to Angel, Nothing But Loving You is another kind of fantasy. Nanako, a top model, has just been fired. While commiserating, her best gay friend tells her the hard truth: her unprofessional attitudes make her too much trouble to deal with.
When she meets a male model, it’s love at first sight for her. She brazenly asks if he’s seeing someone, but he’s already involved. With a guy. The idea of a male model being gay surprises her (only one of the reasons this story seems unrealistic), but just as she wouldn’t avoid a guy with a girlfriend, she continues hitting on him. He turns out to be bisexual, unconcerned with gender when it comes to love.
The art here is looser compared to the earlier books, sometimes going beyond minimalism to flat and sketchy. At times, it even appears to be unfinished, rather like a fashion drawing. Prominent lip lines can give characters a clownish look, but most of the time, they’re easily beautiful enough to fit the setting of the story.
Although these stories were originally published in Japan from 1994-2002, their attitudes toward homosexuality stem from earlier decades. Being gay is shown as one step beyond being best friends with little reference to sex. Nanako questions whether love between two men can be real. Gay characters are willing to just be friends in order to be near the people they love who don’t love them back.
The most prominently out character is a stereotypical bartender with a 70s mustache in God Only Knows. Mincing and dishing, he hits on the straight boy, creeping him out. Gays are considered promiscuous, but all the reader sees is kissing. They’re set dressing (especially for the fashion industry) or plot devices.
Nanako has another guy in the mix, an aspiring actor who’s crazy about her. Although she espouses the idea that sex should follow love, she sleeps with the guy she doesn’t love and claims to love the guy she can’t have. Good sex is more important to her than emotional compatibility.
Nothing But Loving You reads like a shôjo plot with more nudity and sex. Which boy will Nanako choose? Will she get her modeling career back or find satisfaction in simply being loved? Her internal monologue is full of self-doubting questions, and the male model talks about seeing the real, sweet, gentle her behind her tough exterior. The book ends with a “follow your dreams” message and happy ending that comes as something of a surprise, given the story start and Sakurazawa’s previous work.
The Rules of Love continues in a similar vein, only with a male lead. Taku is having a terrible summer. He got kicked out of his apartment after a girl slit her wrists there. He’s trying to crash with one of his many girlfriends, but they’re all preoccupied with pets or work or the men who pay their bills.
Chizu sees him at a bus stop and later a club. She wants to fall in love, so she invites him home with her. It’s something of a backwards relationship, where moving in together leads to sex leads to getting to know each other. Like all summer romances, it won’t last.
Taku can’t stop hooking up with rich women who pay his bills. He’s described as a player, but if he was female, he’d be a call girl. Trying to go straight isn’t as easy as he hopes, and drama from his past isn’t so easily forgotten.
The thin-line art reads quickly and clearly. The lightest of Sakurazawa’s work, this would make a great beach book, especially with the reminders throughout that the leads are spending summer together.
The Aromatic Bitters returns to the style of the first book in both art and subject matter. Sayumi is taking a separate vacation from her live-in boyfriend due to schedule complications. She’s staying with her friend Hide, whose husband is cheating on her, at her mountain place. The setting is gorgeous, the kind of dream house suited for a getaway vacation.
A lost hiker stumbles by and stays to fix the ladies dinner. Food is a theme throughout the books. If one loves someone, one cooks for them, and all the cooks are terrific at it. Several say that they learned to cook because they like eating good food. It’s only one of the appetites satisfied by the characters.
Hide sets up the other two, helping out what she calls destiny. Sayumi’s back-home steady boyfriend can’t compete, since they’ve become almost roommates to each other instead of lovers. Returning from vacation means wondering if the magical romance that happened can continue in real life.
At first, it’s Sayumi’s story, and it’s understandable why she’d want to ditch the dull guy for someone with more spark. Later chapters, though, explore his feelings of confusion and uncertainty. Lots of these characters want someone else to decide their relationships for them, because they don’t understand themselves, let alone their own wants and needs. Hide goes through a similar problem with her husband. Unfortunately, the book ends with “to be continued”, although that seems unlikely at this point. It’s almost too realistic, not knowing how any of the relationships will work out, or who will choose to be with whom.
Sakurazawa’s characters push the boundaries — of relationships, perhaps of sanity — but ultimately comfortably return to the traditional expectations for them. Even if their feelings disagree, they maintain the societal status quo in appearance and convention, although hints of lesbian relationships spice up the journey getting there.
Only children are faithful to those they love; even angels come and go as they please, taking up with other people when you need them with you. Her characters drink and have affairs, giving them a worldly air, but underneath, they’re old-fashioned in attitudes and gender roles. Although claiming to want love, few of them wind up there. The “Romance” label is misleading; these aren’t manga “chick lit” books but stories about how romantic love is ultimately unnecessary.