I am possibly the most complacently casual Manga reader, dipping in and out wherever I go. You see, I'm more of a book girl. Despite really enjoying Manga... With Berserk by Kentaro Miura being the only significant series I dedicate vast amounts of time and income on and Gintama by Hideaki Sorachi getting a little but not nearly enough attention from me, it's bizarre that I find a Manga (unrelated to any anime - looking at you Evangelion) to sink my teeth into. So how did I find The Girl on the Shore?
Inio Asano's melancholic coming-of-age story caught my attention through some rather aesthetic Instagram posts. It's visuals were strange and striking. There was little beauty in it's characters, ordinary as they were. Close ups on lonely faces, their eyes filled with misery. Lush, intricate backgrounds of mundane spaces consuming the lives of these gangly, miserable creatures floating around in the ordinariness. All the while performing perverse, degrading acts as they explore themselves and their sexuality without ever really connecting with the people right in front of them. I knew I had to read it. I knew I needed A Girl on the Shore. I was right.
"In town, there's a tiny beach that's never busy, not even in the summer... You basically never find what you were expecting to. And maybe you weren't expecting to find anything right from the start..."
The plot follows fifteen year old Koume, disillusioned with the life she leads in the sleepy Japanese seaside town, humiliated by the rejection of the local playboy and desperately masking her true desires from her friends, secretly seeks the company of school reject Isobe, a boy who has a crush on her, asking him to take her virginity. Lonely Isobe, running his brothers' blog, skipping school, loathing his classmates whilst severely depressed, carries his own heavy burdens. As the two connect physically, neither seem capable, in their naivety, to penetrate the depths of one another's lives and uncover the deep roots of their pain. A tale of lust, the weight of youth, anger and despondency, it's a stark and taboo exploration of teenage sexuality.
An explicit Manga in every sense of the word, Asano manages to shock and depress all at the same time. The sexual encounters are rarely titillating. Sex is used as a coping mechanism, to humiliate, to punish and push the boundaries of their own comfort-zone. They seek one another out; Koume using Isobe to feel wanted, Isobe using Koume to feel here, to feel as though he should be here. Although described as a love story, much of Asano's work is a self-love story.
“Sex with love is an illusion, y'know!!”
Dialogue between the leads is often stilted and painful. Koume speaks in' likes' and 'stuffs', discusses shallow concerns of a teenager whilst longing to engage in something she barely understands herself. Meanwhile, Isobe is unable to talk anything more than spitefully. His secret weighs on him constantly and yet between the two, his desires are more frank, more depraved. We are witnessing an immature exchange between two children desperate to be perceived as grown. They look young, they sound young and have no understanding of what they are seeking. It is unsettling but powerful.
Asano is exploring a dead-end world. Teens are bored, unstimulated and yet bogged down with the overwhelming social decorum constructed in their world. The Vulgarity of it all is nothing is ever enough. To fit in is to survive. So where does sex conform? Sexual encounters amongst the youth end rarely in committed relationships, they experiment to pass the time and to feel accepted. Yet none are happy. In the world they live, sex and love is purpose. Their world is one of persecution without it.
Which is why Koume and Isobe's relationship is so striking and controversial. They never kiss. They never love. What they have is purely carnal. Awkward, messy and raw. Their desire rules. A tryst in the school bathrooms in the middle of class is proof of this. And if sex is considered the most intimate one can be with another person, their disconnect to one another is startling and uncomfortable. They are pushing boundaries in an attempt to feel and yet their situation may not be too unfamiliar to us and the basic human desire for love. What they have is confusing and humiliating for Koume; her biggest secret is him. Their pride, their shame and their lust shrouds any honest connection the two could make with one another. But Koume's most miserable self, and her stark duality, is exposed in these intimate scenes with Isobe. In fact he is the only one to call her out on the hypocrisy. If anything connects in these moments, it is their sadness, although they fail to understand one another's. Meanwhile, Isobe seems to hold out for something in her, fulfilling her lust and allowing her to take from him at will.
Asano has crafted a world of mundanity. It is clear from many of his works that perversion amongst the day-to-day fascinates him and he constantly explores those controversies through his original art and stories as in the acclaimed series Goodnight Pupun. One could argue that the manga does not warrant the brazen depictions of sexual acts amongst teenagers and that the inclusion is exploitative and pornographic. Does it add to the story? I believe the story is meant to be taboo. I believe we are meant to be unsettled by them. I believe with each act they perform with one another, however debase or shameful, they disconnect all the more. They are replacing the emotional with the physical in avoidance of the truth. They are confused, troubled and selfish.
“Have you ever, for even a second, thought about how hard it is for people like me just to stay alive?”
The depression in the manga strikes me most. We see different displays of that emotional lockdown. Vast open seas, empty and all-consuming, oppressive downpour as students hide beneath run-down structures. Dark bedrooms, battered schoolrooms, silent streets... an environment designed to smother it's inhabitants. More specifically, to drown them. Koume and Isobe are doomed to fail, whilst something in their hearts screams out for more. The latter's depression is heart-breaking in it's muteness, pleasure and punishment his only way of coping with his loneliness and guilt. Adolescents is such a volatile time and Asano has captured the confusion and amalgamation of all these intense desires as they search for life.
I can't help but love A Girl on the Shore. I love it for it's frankness. I love it for it's depressive state. I love it for it's nihilism. Mostly because these characters embody so much of what it is to be lost in the world, despite youth. Because we all feel like we're fifteen again, some more than others. That fear and confusion never really goes away, and so Asano has captured perfectly everyday life and that drowning feeling. It's a pretty quick Manga to read, even as you take in those striking visuals and the beautifully bland world. His art requires one to take a second look, to take in the environment and the contrasting worlds these characters inhabit. Because it's all too familiar. All too unglamorous. Asano holds up a mirror and asks us if we recognise ourselves. And for most of us, we do.