I’m going to do something a little different this week. Vertical’s release of Utsubora, by Asumiko Nakamura, has just started shipping, and should be available in comic shops next week. Vertical was underwhelmed with preorders, and suggested it would be a limited run, which is a real shame. Nakamura’s an author worth reading, and it would be tragic if the first real foray into her work in English went completely ignored. Utsubora is a wonderful book, and after reading it in one sitting when it arrived on Tuesday, I knew nothing else would do for this week’s column.
Shun Mizorogi is a famous author, celebrated for his long legacy of popular, thought-provoking, and slightly erotic novels. At the start of the volume, Mizorogi has just started serializing “Utsubora,” said to be his best work yet. He receives a phone call from the police from “Aki’s” phone, telling him that Aki has died. Mizorogi is profoundly affected by the death, though Aki was allegedly only a young fan he met once at a party. But while viewing the body, Mizorogi meets Aki’s twin sister Sakura, a young woman who is the spitting image of Aki.
There’s much that goes unsaid in Utsubora. We slowly find out that Mizorogi is affected by Aki’s death because he has plagiarized her work in order to publish “Utsubora,” and without her, his first celebrated novel in years will go nowhere. But it’s unclear at first whether Sakura wants to have anything to do with him, is toying with him, or is deeply obsessed with him. His editor finds the manuscript pages with Aki’s name on them, but is too afraid to challenge the author or his superiors with the knowledge of the plagiarism. The editor is deeply in love with Mizorogi’s live-in niece, but doesn’t act on it. And throughout much of the work, Mizorogi’s stance on almost everything that goes on is unclear.
It’s an enticing mystery that draws one in, and Nakamura knows that less is more, offering just enough clues and tantalizing pieces of information to keep the reader interested. But the true purpose behind what Aki and Sakura have done isn’t revealed until the last dozen pages. Even the opening of the book, a 2-page chapter illustration of Aki jumping to her death, is meant to grab one’s attention immediately. I can’t talk about the plot too much without giving things away, but Nakamura paints the mystery quite masterfully. It reminded me a lot of Osamu Tezuka’s Barbara, without the crazy witch wedding and the weird Venus of Willendorf mom. Barbara is more about Barbara the muse who inspires the author to create, whereas Mizorogi is stealing his ideas from a willing “muse.” There are a few other parallels, but again, I can’t get too much into it without spoiling Utsubora. They aren’t very much alike, but there are thematic similarities.
Nakamura is also good at characterization, where each character has their quiet faults, vices, and personality. Interestingly, the only blank slate in the book is Mizorogi himself, and as I mentioned, it’s an interesting key. It allows the other characters to act themselves in his presence, and keeps his motivations unclear throughout, which makes the mystery all the more maddening.
The only problem I had was that the narrative has a tendency to skip slightly ahead or behind in time without warning, and it sometimes took a page or so to orient myself again. I also had to re-read the ending to make sure I understood, and even then, it only clicked after I thought about it a bit further. But it’s very much worth it.
Nakamura’s art is elegant but spare, and she makes use of white space and flowing line to make everything very curvy. She also uses a lot of spot black, to great effect. I first ran across her art in the JManga-translated book Doukyuusei, and her faces took some getting used to. But here, they are rather stylishly rendered and look very much at home. Aki and Sakura’s eyes in particular are fairly ornate compared to the spare design elsewhere. There are also a handful of erotic scenes that look amazing in Nakamura’s style, not because they’re erotic, but because she knows how to use composition and cutting between scenes to make them fairly tasteful and very beautiful.
Utsubora is the type of book that could be read by anyone looking for an excellent story in comic form. I find that sometimes manga can be difficult to recommend to an outside audience, but I do hope that this volume finds its way into the hands of more than just the niche manga audience that normally reads these more adult-oriented volumes. I’d love to see this do well for Vertical, as that would bode well for more Nakamura in English.