My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Continuing my exploration of Asano’s work. So far I have read the winsome and ultimately optimistic coming-of-age tale
Solanin and the intricately nihilistic myth-haunted psychological-horror puzzle Nijigahara Holograph, both from earlier in the artist’s career, though published in the US only recently. A Girl on the Shore is a slightly later work, serialized beginning in 2009 in Manga Erotics—and erotic manga it is. I imagine some readers will be disturbed by the dispassionate clarity in this book’s depiction of the sexual lives of teenagers, but Asano’s treatment of sex is as intelligent, compassionate, and well-designed as any other element of his writing and art. We follow the slow progress of our protagonists—the shut-in “anime nerd” Isobe and the yearning and listless Koume—through a socially and emotionally ambiguous sexual relationship. Their desire and their confusion are both treated forthrightly, and we sympathize with each in turn as we learn of their respective struggles—and, because Asano beautifully deploys dramatic irony, it is all the more poignant that they never fully learn of each other’s struggles, as the reader does.
The quality of youthful longing that characterized Solanin is here, as is the cruelty and pain of Nijigahara Holograph: in this book, Asano has attained an impressive emotional complexity in braiding the two tones, as they are braided in life. (Though I would have a hard time judging A Girl on the Shore superior to Nijigahara Holograph, given the latter’s labyrinthine excursion into the mysteries of time and mental space.) Asano’s storytelling is musical, as his panel transitions go from jump-cut leaps to tracking-shot crawls, which have the effect in comics, as they cannot in cinema, of seeming to quicken and slow time itself.
The “boring” provincial town in which the story is set, which depresses the characters’ spirits, is bordered by the ocean: this fragile and necessarily evanescent romance gains in stature precisely because it looks so small next to the vastness of the water. The moral of the story is, as a minor character puts it, “Like some stuff happens and then more stuff, and that ends up being who I am. You don’t have to go hurrying to find anything, y’know?” That is in its slackness pretty unpromising a theme, you might think, but when detailed with Asano’s combination of unrelenting craft and emotional honesty, when shadowed by the immensities of life and death (as signified by the ocean), it becomes weighty enough for a work of narrative art in the twenty-first century. As an aesthetic, it implies devotion to capturing experience in its transience. And as an ethic, its implication is surely mild kindness. Which phrase does not exactly sum up the narrative itself, in its affecting evocation of bottomless adolescent yearning and the pain of even the most inevitable change.
The phrase “girl on the shore” refers to several characters, including the novel’s male protagonist, who wishes at one point for what he imagines as the more livable life of a woman—but in another way it refers to everyone. Asano’s conclusion is to look less for what we have lost on the shore in our quest for permanence and more at the ever-changing sea itself.