My Girl — Yumeka Sumomo

panel from My Girl

Somebody on the internets recommended My Girl as an underrated manga and from the description it sounded somewhat similar to Usagi Drop, which I’d marathoned a few weeks ago and wished I could’ve had more of. This however turned out to be slightly misleading, because while both stories are about young men just going with the flow suddenly coming into custody of five year old girls, the focus of both series is completely different. Usagi Drop is the story of becoming a parent, of learning to raise a child and overcoming all the every day challenges that come with it, while My Girl isn’t about that at all. Instead this is a story about grief and loss and coming to terms with it, of how this loss shapes and influences your daily life even as you struggle to overcome it and move on while remaining faithful to their memory. Needless to say this hit home for me.

Panel from My Girl

Here’s how the story starts. Kazama Masamune is a 23 year old salaryman stuck in a small town in the middle of nowhere, all because he promised Tsukamoto Youko, his high school love, he’d wait for her there if she ever decided to come back from her studies abroad. That was five years ago. And now he gets a phone call from Youko’s mother that’ll change his life. Youko has not only passed away, but it turns out the reason for her going abroad was that she was pregnant with his child… …and now he has Koharu, his five year old daughter to take care of, with both of them having to cope with each other’s grief over Youko’s death.

Panel from My Girl

And it’s an understated, realistic sort of grief My Girl portrays, free from melodrama, the kind of sorrow that creeps up on you in the quiet hours, when you’re not distracted by work or school. I recognised a lot of myself in the ways in which both Masamune and Koharu dealt with their grief. No grand, dramatic gestures and atmospheric weather, just memories you come across in unguarded moments. I recognise the desire to keep up a front, to not burden friends or family with your sorrow or loneliness.

Panel from My Girl

What saves is that they have each other to talk to, to share memories of Youko and discover her all over again. By sharing memories they can keep her alive a little bit, as each of them gets to see a new side of Youko through the stories of the other. All the while they’re also busy building a new life together, one that’s founded in their mutual love for Youko, which quickly transforms into love for each other. That transformation, of Masamume learning to be a father and Koharu learning to live with her father, is a delight to read about, a joyful counterpoint to the sorrow of Youko’s death.

Panel from My Girl

This is also a story about forgetting and not wanting to forget, about letting go and moving on and what this means. From the start, even before he learns of her death, Masamume is exhorted to forget about Youko, to move on from what his family and friends/co-workers see as a childish high school infatuation, to stop waiting for somebody who will never come back to him. Objectively speaking, they’re right to do so. Youko was never going to come back, while he was living his whole life in thrall to his memories of her, in the process also losing sight of the real Youko. And while at first glance his devotion might be seen as romantic, it’s ultimately more cowardice than romance that keeps Masumume waiting for Youko. In a sense it’s only her death that legitimises his choice to wait, as it also finally enables him to start thinking about letting go of his dream.

Panel from My Girl

However, that doesn’t mean that this criticism is wholly justified. As he rediscovers Youko through his life with Koharu, as he struggles to deal with her death, it becomes clear he has kept on loving her all those years apart, even though he didn’t fully understand her or her motives. And as he attempst to move forward in the last part of the story, even starts dating a co-worker who had been in love with him even before Youko died, it’s obvious that he can’t move on from her that quickly.

Panel from My Girl

Reading My Girl is an exercise in melancholy, leaving behind an overwhelming sense of regret and what-if. I’ve never quite had an off-screen death of a character reach me so as it did here. Yumeka Sumomo manages to not just convey the grief and sadness of Youko’s death, but also the wasted opportunities for Youko, Masamume and Koharu to have shared their lives. I couldn’t help but wonder what might have been had Youko not ran away abroad, not gone for the noble self sacrifice, or if Masamume had been slightly more proactive rather than just kept passively waiting for her to come back. In a sense both of them chose safety, of not being hurt over the chance at happiness. By not telling him about her pregnancy Youko avoided being rejected by Masamume at the price of any possibility of a true relationship, while by being passive and neither seeking her out nor moving on, Masamume could avoid a similar rejection. Very understandable on both their parts, but damn if that doesn’t hurt to read.

Books read October

Yes, November has almost finished and I still haven’t put up what I read in October. Looking back at my monthly reading roundups you can really see where I started to lose interest and went for watching anime over more literary pursuits. I just haven’t had the energy or concentration to focus on books, since at least July or so. That’s the first time that’s happened since I started my booklog. So this month again there are only two books I remember reading:

Deconstructing the Starships — Gwyneth Jones
a collection of essays and reviews on fantasy and science fiction dating back to the early to mid nineties. Interesting, even if I don’t necessarily agree with Jones’ opinions. Also interesting to read this a decade and a half after publication, with enough time passed to see which burning issues of the day sizzled out and which are still ongoing concerns.

The Rhesus chart — Charlie Stross
A Laundry novel I bought when Charlie came to Amsterdam for a book signing, but I don’t seem to actually have gotten it signed. A scrum team of high end banking IT nerds independently invents vampirism, things get worse from there on out.

A blue screened future

Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Stories Inspired by Microsoft features work by Elizabeth Bear, Greg Bear, David Brin, Nancy Kress, Ann Leckie, Jack McDevitt, Seanan McGuire and Robert J. Sawyer, “also includes a short graphic novel by Blue Delliquanti and Michele Rosenthal, and original illustrations by Joey Camacho” and is available for free from the usual ebook retailers.

An interesting sort of vanity project for Mickeysoft. I would be more excited about it if not for the authors involved, who with the exception of Elizabeth Bear, Ann Leckie and Seanan McGuire are not exactly exciting nor the first ones I think about if I want science fiction writers with a firm grasp of the future. Rather, collectively this group seems to have peaked somewhere around the introduction of Windows 3.11.

Gods cannot do wrong — Noragami

Noragami Aragoto: gods can do no wrong

Noragami Aragoto is the second season of the Noragami series, at first glance just your typical fantasy action anime, about a gods who armed with weapons created of restless spirits fight off demons and other supernatural menaces, loosely based on Japanese mythology/religion. What set it apart was the relationship between the three main characters: Yato, a god of war/misfortune, down on his luck and without any followers, his spirit weapon Yukine, a teenage boy turned restless spirit and Hiyori Iki, a normal school girl until an accident left her halfway between life and death and able to separate her soul from her body. The first season explored that relationship, the way each depended on the others, as well as Yato’s history as a god of misfortune and the way the gods worked in general. The second season just had its sixth episode, which concludes the first story arc, in which Yato’s past with Bishamon, a much more powerful and successful war god is used to manipulate the latter into self destruction.

Noragami Aragoto: humans can make mistakes

And at the climax, it echoes one of the key points of the previous season, something that annoyed me at the time: the idea that the gods cannot do wrong, that the very notion of right and wrong is a human concept inapplicable to them. At the time it was presented as a justification for some of Yato’s less savoury behaviour, a fairly typical defense of the idea that the gods are above such human concerns. Here however we get the other side of the coin: if gods cannot do wrong, humans are allowed to make mistakes. You learn by your mistakes and if you’re never allowed to be wrong, you cannot learn or grow. That’s a theme that’s been present in the background of the entire series, now finally stated out in the open as the most destructive and unnecessary conflict in the series comes to an end. Where Yato and Yukine almost had to destroy each other to grow last season, here it’s Bishamon’s self destruction, fed by the villain’s manuipulations that finally forces her to grow up.

It’s this sort of thing that makes Noragami Aragoto my second favourite anime of this season, after concrete Revolutio.

Who’d think the kids don’t read their Asimov

I really want to argue against Adam-Troy Castro’s argument here that

nobody discovers a lifelong love of science fiction through Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein anymore, and directing newbies toward the work of those masters is a destructive thing, because the spark won’t happen. You might as well advise them to seek out Cordwainer Smith or Alan E. Nourse — fine tertiary avenues of investigation, even now, but not anything that’s going to set anybody’s heart afire, not from the standing start. Won’t happen.

By objecting that, actually, I so did discover a lifelong love of science fiction through Asimov, Clarke and even Nourse — The Mercy Men was one of the first sf novels I’ve ever read– but considering that happened a good thirty years ago, it’s hardly relevant to what actual young people would read. Even back then, something like I, Robot was several decades old and outdated in its technology and sociological attitudes both, but not so that I noticed as an eight year old reading it for the first time. Almost all children’s fiction I read was like that after all, set in some nebulous present that was clearly not mine: like the Bob Evers series, originally written in the fifties and early sixties. I read all that without caring or noticing much that these were old books, therefore I’m not sure that kids today can’t read in a similar way, even if there are no mobiles or computers in them.

On the other hand, there were a lot less opportunities to find science fiction thirty years ago. We only got cable tv in 1987 or so, our family’s first computer in the same year, no internet until the mid-nineties, etc. etc. There are just so many more ways in which you can get your first taste of science fiction today, that you certainly don’t need to seek out writers who’ve been dead longer than you’ve been alive. On the gripping hand however, some of the young adult stuff I read back then is still being sold today, with little problems though perhaps with some updates.

The rampant sexism and whitebread worldview of much socalled golden age science fiction might be more of a problem. Asimov might still be barely palatable due to his lack of female characters in general, though when they show up, they’re usually awful. The same goes for Clarke, though he was slightly better and few of his characters were well rounded humans anyway. Heinlein? Oy, Heinlein is very much a curate’s egg — parts are excellent, but some are hideous. At this point in time, I don’t think new readers will miss much skipping all these authors in favour of those like Dick, Delany, LeGuin or Russ which had slightly more to offer than just the strength of their ideas.