English, Please!: Gunjo
April 27, 2012
I was a bit torn this week on which series to license request. But then I remembered suddenly that this was the week of the Manga Moveable Feast, Viz Signature edition, hosted by Kate over at the Manga Critic. This doesn’t really count, since it hasn’t been translated into English. But it did run in Ikki magazine in Japan, so the SigIkki line is the most likely place for it were it to be licensed. And it’s an excuse to talk about it, too. It’s very good.
I’ve said before that I enjoy melodramatic romance titles. This… falls under that umbrella, but honestly, it’s better than that. It transcends that, and is almost uncomfortable to read because of it. The relationship is extremely desperate. The melodrama is completely serious in the context of the series, too. Unlike countless car accidents the characters simply recover from whenever the plot needs some spice, Gunjo starts out with a murder, and both the main characters flee, and constantly waver back and forth about whether to deal with the real-world consequences of their actions. They’re really, really no good for each other. It’s not a romance in the sense that the two will end up together. Because they probably won’t. But the story is about their relationship anyway.
You know… it just occurred to me, I can’t find the character’s names in the first volume. I’m terrible at Japanese, so maybe I’m missing them. But they may not have any. They definitely never call each other by their names, the news articles always leave the names out, and… I don’t think the other characters ever use their names, either. That’s interesting.
So this is a story about two women. One with dark hair and glasses, and one with blonde hair. The story starts immediately after the blonde woman kills the husband of the dark-haired woman. The latter was being beaten badly, and her husband cheated on her constantly. Finally, after being beaten for the last time, she calls the blonde woman. The blonde had a crush on her in high school, ten years ago. The dark-haired woman knows the blonde will do whatever she asks, so she sleeps with her and asks her to murder her husband. And the blonde does it.
At first, the dark-haired woman seems to be heartlessly taking advantage of the blonde. She thinks to herself that the blonde is a stupid lesbian, and would do anything for a smile. Even still, rather than letting the blonde run off and leaving her absolutely free, she runs off with the blonde. And their difficult life together starts.
The first volume starts with the blonde portrayed as a surprisingly cheerful, happy-go-lucky woman who is incredibly obedient to the dark-haired woman. She doesn’t seem capable of committing a murder. She’s also very clear about the fact she is in love with the dark-haired woman. The dark-haired woman is emotionally remote, and doesn’t offer an opinion of the blonde woman after her initial impression of her being a stupid lesbian. It becomes clear that her side of the bond is deeper than friendship, but it’s not quite love. By the end of volume one, the dark-haired woman does appear to care deeply about the blonde. And the blonde is becoming increasingly unhinged, lamenting what she’s done, sorry she ever fell in love with the dark-haired woman, but still not leaving her. So there’s not really a friendship, and not really a romance. It’s more about the bond. A bond that is incredibly bad for both of them. One is constantly hurting the other mentally, or physically, or both. Sometimes they hurt themselves and the other. But they can’t separate, because the bond is… well, permanent.
Every chapter is about what one or the other will do. Sometimes the dark-haired woman threatens to call the police and turn them both in. Sometimes the blonde offers to turn herself in and claim she was holding the dark-haired woman against her will. Sometimes one offers to kill the other, or they consider committing suicide, individually or together. Chapters end variously with the two of them sitting in a puddle of gasoline holding a lighter, in the bath after one has stabbed the other, or with one hanging from a doorknob by a towel.
You can see that it’s not exactly light reading. It sounds depressing and maybe a little over-the-top. It’s definitely the former, but in the context of the sin they share, their reactions read as very realistic. They aren’t trying to escape their crime, they both seem to be looking for a way to react to it, something that includes the other. It’s incredibly heavy, but it’s also extraordinarily well-written. The characters are so realistic, and the story so dark, that reading it is almost a creepy voyeuristic experience. You really get inside their heads, which is scary in a story like this, and why I like it so much.
One of my favorite parts of the first volume, because it is so utterly tragic, is a story that takes place in the blonde’s former apartment. We see her lover react to what’s happened, and we see glimpses of the life the blonde threw away. It’s absolutely more tragic than just leaving a loved one behind. We see just how much the blonde meant to her lover, and how her actions destroyed it all. Just… wow.
One of the other things I’ll mention quickly is Ching Nakamura’s art. One of the things I like best about it are the facial expressions. She’s really good at expressive faces, and can draw the absolute most tragic facial expressions I’ve ever seen. Crying, anger, and faces that really do make it seem like the characters have given up on life. I also like her composition and visual pace quite a bit. It slows down at just the right times.
I’ve only read the first volume, but the third and final volume is set to come out at the end of May. All three of the volumes are massive, around 500 pages. The story in the first volume ends with the pair running out of money and yet another aborted attempt at a final solution to their problem. I have no idea where the two are going from here, but I’m sure it’s no place pleasant. I’m prepared for that, and I’m so glad a story like this exists. After reading so many romances with stereotypical characters and storybook happy endings, every once in awhile, you have to pick up a book like this. It’s better than all that, and I love it when a story breaks out of the happy ending mold. Especially when it’s a story as spectacular as this one.
I feel like I probably haven’t done this series justice, but its true champion is Erica over at Okazu, who describes its finer points more articulately than I ever could.