Girl Meets Girl
Concept and story by Satoru Akahori
Art by Yukimari Katsura
Character design by Sukune Inugami
School uniform design by COSPA, Inc.
Translated by Adrienne Beck & Janet Houck
Lettering/Retouch by Nicky Lim & Cheese
Edited by Adam Arnold
Shunned by the girl of his dreams, Hazumu lost himself in the mountains and was promptly squashed by an alien spaceship. The aliens, feeling bad for what they did, remade Hazumu's body... but they got it wrong!
Okay, in case you can't tell from the huge list of credits above (concept? character design? uniform design?), this isn't so much an original manga as a media property created to be unleashed on several fronts at once. In addition to the manga and the inevitable anime, there's also a light novel series, a visual novel for the PS2, a straight-to-video movie, a radio play... You get the drift.
At this point those of you who know me are wondering why I even picked up this series in the first place. Well, to be honest, the gorgeous color covers and frontispieces were what did it. They're simply beautiful. Here's the frontispiece from volume 2...
You can see why I'd find this appealing — it's got a nice soft look that's bright and inviting, and even somewhat wistful. And this scan doesn't even capture the luminous, ethereal color of the original.
But is it any good?
Yeah, actually, it is.
The basic plot is this: Hazumu gets squashed by aliens, and rebuilt as a girl. As you can imagine, this makes his life very complicated. He/she/it has difficulty adjusting to life as a woman. Hir parents are inexplicably overjoyed to have a daughter instead of a son. The press keeps hounding xem. The aliens smooshed tem have moved in, and keeps asking shem strange questions about love. Mer overly-hormonal best friend keeps interpreting all of xyr actions as come-ons. Eir other childhood friend, Tomari, has become strangely distant as she tries to reconcile Hazumu's new body with her long-time crush. And for some strange reason Yasuna, the girl who dumped thon, now claims to be in love with zir!1
That's the real thrust of the series — the love triangle between girly-boy-turned-girl Hazumu, the delicately feminine Yasuna, and the tomboyish Tomari. Hazumu and Tomari have more gender-normative roles — at first, they both declare that it's not right for a girl to love another girl, though gradually they realize that they can't deny the strength of their feelings. Yasuna's on the other side — she's only capable of loving Hazumu because he's a girl, as she seems to be suffering from a crippling androphobia. The three of them dance around each other in a sort of love stalemate, occasionally interrupted when the aliens pop up to try and bring the whole thing to a head.
So what sets something like this apart from, say, Pretty Face? Well, for starters, it's not merely a set-up for fan service2. Kashimashi is more interested in exploring the personalities of its characters, and it does a great job of that. Hazumu comes across as a typical pubescent kid, confused by the changes in his body and gripped by the terrible indecisiveness of youth. Tomari's state of denial and her attempts to cling to a Hazumu that no longer exist are explored in fascinating detail. And Yasuna's perfectly feminine facade crumbles a bit to show the creepy awkwardness and petty jealousy that lurk beneath.
If there's a flaw in the writing, it's that the whole enterprise comes off as a too calculated, too artificial. There are moments that just don't play well in the comic, but seem tailor-made for the inevitable anime and video game adaptations. There are tons of extraneous minor characters who exist only for comic relief. The aliens only seem interested in to constructinh plot-driven stories that'll for TV episodes. Aspects of Yasuna's personality are glossed over so that you don't think about them.
Even so, what's here is very well constructed and the "flaws" aren't much more than nitpicks.
Okay, so it's an entertaining read. You really want to know about the art, right?
Well, the art is a bit of a mixed bag. Those color pieces are simply gorgeous, as I've mentioned, but the sequential pages are not as strong. Let's take a look at a sample sequence from the first volume...
The first thing you'll note is that Hazumu and Tomari have the exact same face — the only thing that distinguishes them from each other is the hairstyle.3 They also look way too young — they're supposed to be high school students, but they look like they're barely out of elementary school. The line weight isn't varied enough to create a real sense of dimensionality (though that's partly a matter of personal preference, and is countered somewhat by the sensitive toning).
The storytelling's is solid, though, even if it's straight from Shojo 101 — swirling POV shots on a sparkly background, tight close-ups, exquisitely-detailed clothing, etc. At the same time, though, the figure construction, spotting of detail, and toning are all excellent. What really makes artist Yukimaru Katsura stand out, though, is her gift for body language and facial expressions. Check out this sequence from the second volume...
Note the emotional journey Hazumu goes through in these two pages. First, she's zoned out, indecisive, unable to commit to answering Tomari's phone call, as emphasized by her empty pupils and the open position of her hands. Then she snaps shut the phone in relief, but her anxious, inward posture and mussed hair betray feelings of shame and self-doubt. Next, mild embarassment, followed by a full-blown cartoon freak-out whose exaggerated poses underscore the overly-theatrical histrionics. Then Hazumu reverts to an appropriately neutral face, as she gathers her thoughts and the focus of the scene changes.
Our focus shifts to Hazumu's mental image of Yasuna. At first, she's an object, with a stock smile and a stock pose. A blooming flower, as Hazumu says, but one glimpsed from afar and not in fine detail. But as Hazumu talks to her, she opens up, the expression becomes a bit more particular, though still not completely free from artifice. And then those penetrating eyes, with a delicate tilt and an alluring blackness that suggests wistful longing, but still neutral enough that you wonder whether there's true desire there or if you're just projecting. And then, back to two panels of Hazumu, whose flushed face covered by clenched hands betrays a combination of full-blown desire and slight confusion, even as his distant eyes suggest that he thoughts have turned completely inward.
Now that's some effective body language.
Overall, Kashimashi is a highly entertaining read. Sure, there's some pandering to the audience, and it's not exactly literature, but there are some flashes of brilliance that deserve your attention.
- I am officially giving up on the gender-neutral pronouns, partly because spell-check is laughing at me, but mostly because they look stupider than they sound. Which is saying something.
- Oh, sure, Kashimashi doesn't cringe from showing a girl in her undies, but those moments are generally appropriate within the story. In fact, there are several places where panty shots and ass shots are deliberately avoided.
- To be fair to the artist, it's possible that the sameness might come from undue fidelity to the original character designs.