Monday, May 23, 2011

Life 1: A Comic Review

Writer/Artist: Suenobu Keiko

Translation: Michelle Kobayashi
English Adaptation: Darcy Lockman
Publisher: Tokyopop

This is Life the comic, not the game. Or the cereal. And this is how life works: while in the U.S. we get assigned to high schools based on demographics and geographic location, in Japan junior high kids have to pass a test. Ayumu is an underachieving girl who latches onto high scoring smarty Shinozuka (Shii-chan for short but only if you’re close) for friendship and tutoring. As Ayumu’s grades improve, so does her outlook on life. Now she has a super-supportive best friend and if things work out, they’ll be together at the coolest school in the city, Nishidate High.

Sometimes things don’t work out. Shinozuka’s grades plummet as she expends energy on the needy Ayumu and when the big test scores come in, Ayumu’s the one going to Nishidate. Solo. This scotches the friendship and Ayumu finds herself isolated and hurting among the seemingly happy Nishidate student body. Luckily for her, she’s cute enough to catch the attention of the instantly popular Manami. Manami’s perky, pretty, has a sweet boyfriend and a sunny outlook on life. She’s everything Ayumu wants to be so she learns to bask in Manami’s reflected light. But…

Why is Ayumu still so unhappy? Losing Shii-chan’s friendship has left her with an introspective streak and the more she exercises it on Manami, the more this brightly effervescent girl proves to be spinning somewhat out of control. So out of control, Ayumu’s going to have cause to regret the pinky swear they made to always help each other out on pain of being “stabbed by a thousand needles.” And finally there’s Hatori the mysterious girl with a bad reputation who makes Ayumu’s heart pound.

Well, it may not be a game or a breakfast food but it was a hit Japanese TV drama in 2007. The show’s theme became hugely successful on the pop charts; more sequential connections here-- it was sung by Nakashima Mika, the actress who plays rocker Nana in the two films based on that comic.

Here's a link to the music video, which features scenes from the drama:

It accurately depicts how much more over-the-top the TV series is compared to the comic. While the show quickly veers into melodrama that approaches grand guignol, Suenobu Keiko’s comic series starts with a slow building and expertly observed psychological portrait of a vulnerable teen coming apart under the strains of everyday life.

The Shiiba sisters have more needs than their single mom can deal with, so as the eldest, Ayumu is left to deal with her issues alone. Status as something of an afterthought around the home combines with the intense pressure to pass those entrance exams until Ayumu resorts to desperate measures to attune herself. First she discovers the deliciousness of pain through poking herself with her compass and when Shi-chan turns on her in jealousy and disappointment, Ayumu becomes a cutter.

Suenobu deftly depicts the dynamic between Ayumu's despair and the false sense of control she gets from cutting. Each slice must be strangely comforting in a way I really can't understand, but also shameful, as when Ayumu realizes her school will soon switch to their short-sleeved summer uniforms and she has so many visible scar. When these scars intensify her feelings of isolation and freakishness if discovered, Ayumu will find herself locked in a vicious cycle.

Suenobu’s Manami is another smart sketching of a teen in crisis. Her ever-present smile and chirpy demeanor draw Ayumu to her. Manami definitely has charisma; almost everyone wants to either know her or be her. But she possesses a shocking and overt cruel streak, one that Ayumu tries to overlook as Manami draws her into a sort of codependent relationship which they consummate with the fateful pinky swear. Despite her upbeat demeanor and her perfect hair, there’s something cracked about Manami, an ugly and even helpless side that, increasingly, Ayumu finds repulsive yet compelling; she constantly reminds herself that no matter how ugly things get, she truly is Manami’s friend.

Suenobu’s artwork features clean line work combined frequently with mechanical or computer-generated gray screentones, cartooned emotions and page layouts with overlapping panels. Take away the gritty psychological realism and it could be any generic high school romance story. And like the artists of those lighter comedic tales, Suenobu opens each chapter with idealized, romanticized inkwash images that in Life belie the harshness within.

In fact, there’s an almost disturbing disparity between these fashionable, large-eyed, cutesy looking characters within their overly familiar high school setting and the stark imagery of dark beads of blood bubbling out of Ayumu’s shallow wrist cuts. It plays against the reader’s expectations of frivolity and increases the emotional impact. A powerful dissonance.

I started reading this manga because a friend turned me onto the drama and we both enjoyed its campier elements. At the time, I was actually living in Japan and teaching English to students of all ages. I tried my best not to pry into my students’ personal lives, but sometimes I saw tears and stark mood changes even in our classroom. Life may be somewhat exaggerated for dramatic effect and the reality may or may not be so dark, these kids’ lives are shaped by enormous stresses and responsibilities. Many of them are up at 6am and not home before 9pm, 6 or even 7 days a week.

Club activities; frequent exams that cover Japanese, biology, history, Classical Japanese (which they amusingly call “Old Japanese”), mathematics and English all at once; nights spent fighting sleep in favor of studying leading to somnolence throughout the day; bullying; and those looming college entrance exams… these kids rarely stand still. The pace causes break-downs.

It would’ve killed me dead. Suenobu ably sketches out all of these stresses and strains and compresses them into her narrative as background details. In one ironic scene, a radio DJ glibly exhorts hard-studying students about battling the Sandman while Ayumu viciously slaps herself to stay awake, then stabs her hand with her mechanical pencil and before upping the ante with her compass. The adult world seems only vaguely aware of its impact on Life's teens.

Throughout, Suenobu willfully eschews many tropes and clich├ęs (there’s a girl in glasses, but she’s not a major character, confidant or comedic nerd) in favor of an earnest and emotionally affecting look at the trials of teen life that are anything but cute. With a damaged protagonist who’s obviously in store for more torture, Life Vol. 1 is an emotionally affecting and eye-opening story that despite hints of hope, ends on a desolate note. Obviously, life for Ayumu means further pain if she’s to find her way into the light.

The translation by Michelle Kobayashi and Darcy Lockman is solid. The dialogue comes off as youthful and chatty, and Ayumu's interior monologues are age-appropriately introspective. There's also an informative and sensitive essay about cutting by licensed clinical psychologist Susan M. Axtell.

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