Collect this now! Sweet Cream and Red Strawberries

One of the first casualties in what became the bottoming out of the American manga market was CPM, also known as Central Park Media. A multimedia company known for releasing such fan-favorite anime like MD Geist and the tentacle porn extravaganza Urotsukidoji. Having dipped their toe into the manga waters in the mid-2000s, the line released a host of titles like Plastic Little and Geobreeders, as well as a host of yaoi books through their Be Beautiful line. The whole thing -- well, the whole manga thing -- came crashing down around 2005-6 when the company discontinued their the line. The rest of the company slowly imploded and eventually went bankrupt in 2009.

Whenever any publishing company like this goes belly up, there are a number of planned and promised titles that never get to see the light of day, and CPM was no exception. The most egregious manga of theirs that never saw the light of day, and one that many serious manga fans were anticipating, is today's CTN pick,  Sweet Cream and Red Strawberries by Kiriko Nananan.

Nananan's work is not completely unknown to North American manga readers. A couple of her short stories have appeared in two seminal "alternative" manga anthologies: Viz's Secret Comics Japan, and Fantagraphics' Sake Jock. More significantly, the "nouvelle manga" publisher Fanfare/Ponent Mon published her one-volume tale Blue, about a lesbian affair that develops between two schoolgirls, way back in 2004.

Like many josei (or adult women's) manga, Nananan's work focuses on urban, single women looking for love, friendship and success. What distinguishes her from most of her colleagues (at least the ones that have been published on these shores) is her acute realism, eye for small details and knack for understatement. At first glance, her work can seem deceptively placid and almost inert, but a closer reading quickly reveals the raw, painful emotions that lie just under the surface.

Also known as Strawberry Shortcakes, Sweet Cream and Red Strawberries is the tale of four young, single women living in Tokyo: Touko and Chihiro -- both roommates -- and Akiyo and Suzuki. The book jumps back and forth between the four ladies' lives which, except for the two roommates, don't have much to do with each other on the surface. What the quartet all share, however, is a desperate, almost existential loneliness and a hungry longing for love and acceptance. Touko, coming off of a bad break-up, is an overworked, bulimic shut-in. Chihiro is an overager country girl looking to prove herself in the big city but suffering from a terrible insecurity. Suzuki is stuck in a dull existence, eager to find Mr. Right, but unwilling or unable to initiate any forward momentum in her love life. Akiyo is a call girl, passionately in love with a former childhood friend but terrified to reveal it for fear of rejection.

Nananan tells all of these stories in her usual minimalist style. Her razor-thin line never does more than delineate forms, any sort of cross-hatching or shading is completely verboten. Only the occasional greytone is used to suggest depth and solidity. She rarely draws her characters facing the reader head-on or in full body poses, preferring to offer tight profile close-ups, only to quickly cut to their feet or an unoccupied corner of the room, as though after putting them through their paces she can't bear to watch her characters suffer. Indeed, many sequences frequently interpose large all-white or all-black panels where the characters reveal their innermost longings, as though what they have to say is too raw and hurtful to be revealed and has to be separated from the actual story.

All of this merely serves to accentuate the cast's emotional fragility, heighten the tension and give greater gravitas to seemingly minor moments. When Akiyo, for example, stumbles her foot across a bottle of nail polish in her would-be lover's room it's a horrible, shocking moment, because we and she realize that her friend already has a lover, and that he's not interested in her in that way.

Sweet Cream isn't a perfect book -- Suzuki's stasis seems paltry compared to the emotional anguish the other three women go through and the book feels uneven as a result -- but it remains an affecting, at times devastating examination of the isolation and emotional desolation that modern women go through. Some aspiring manga publisher (perhaps Fanfare? Viz? Fantagraphics?) needs to take it upon themselves to ensure that this book, as well as Nananan's other works, finally reaches an American audience.

Note: The images are taken from a photocopied version of the book sent to me by CPM way back when they initially planned on publishing it. As far as I know, it's one of the only versions -- perhaps the only version -- of the book in English to date.

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