By Kanta Ishida / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterThe manga this week
Subaru to Suu-san (The Strange Life of Subaru)
By Natsuko Takahashi (Kadokawa)
It’s a challenge to tell a simple love story in an appealing way these days. Convincing yet original obstacles for couples to overcome are necessary for all good romance dramas. Such hardships as incurable diseases, differing backgrounds or status, and adultery have become overused. Under such circumstances, the creator of this week’s manga has gone to the extreme to set up a completely fantastical scenario.
The story centers on the lives of Mio, a young woman who works at a flower shop, and Subaru, who looks like an elementary school student. They live together in a small apartment, apparently as siblings with a large age difference. Subaru, however, does not go to school, and he speaks and behaves like an adult. When they are alone together, Mio calls Subaru “Suu-san.” What’s the secret that they are trying so hard to hide?
Subaru was once an ordinary adult who worked as a cook at an Italian restaurant. One day, when Mio and Subaru were out on a date, the air became filled with a thick fog that somehow gave him the physical appearance of a child. Mio hid the despairing Subaru to protect him, and they have been living together ever since while searching for a way for him to return to his former self.
It sounds like a parody of a well-known manga featuring a boy detective. In spite of its fanciful setting, however, the storyline of this week’s manga is quite serious, as it meticulously describes the tender moments that take place in the daily lives of Subaru and Mio.
Readers of the manga who are around my age may be reminded of “Kandagawa,” a folk song by Kosetsu Minami and Kaguyahime that was a huge hit in 1973. Perhaps it was necessary to rely on this kind of fantasy in order to re-create the world of “Kandagawa” in a contemporary context.
It is also quite interesting that this unique setting naturally focuses less on the gender roles of Mio and Subaru. One of the major tendencies of romantic manga in the latter Heisei era is the toning down of scenes featuring physical intimacy — perhaps the result of the growing “soshoku-ka” nature of society in which many people have little or no interest in romantic relationships. This work is a good example of that trend.
Despite this, the sensual drawings by the female mangaka Natsuko Takahashi sent my pulse racing. I hope this doesn’t sound too provocative, but this story is in some way a reverse of Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel “Lolita.”
Subaru spends most of his time indoors before finally accepting his predicament. With Mio’s encouragement, he decides to begin his life anew. When he does so, the stalled relationship between Mio and Subaru begins to stir again. It seems unlikely that Subaru will return to his former self and live happily again as an ordinary couple with Mio, but I look forward to closely following this bizarre yet authentic love story to find out where it will lead.