Shun Mizorogi is an acclaimed novelist who seems to have passed his prime. He hasn’t written a thing in years yet at his publisher’s party, he becomes infatuated with a young girl who calls herself Aki Fujino.
After the debut his new work, the police calls him in to identify a body of a girl who jumped a building. At the morgue, he sees Fujino’s body and another girl who looks exactly like her.
This is a story of a novelist. This is Utsubora.
A leap of faith
Utsubora has a charm which I find difficult to explain to friends. I’m not exactly sure how to sell this title to friends. I can start with Nakamura Asumiko. She’s quite known as a fantastic BL artist with her titles always at the top of Kono BL ga Yabai every year. However, this title is not exactly BL so fujoshi friends usually shy away from things that aren’t BL or BL friendly. I can try with my non-BL reading friends but the concept of selling a murder mystery when what they want is a vampire romance or an existentialist piece makes me think twice about gushing about this title.
So I’ll do it here. Because my god, I have to put a place where I can gush about titles I love and in this case, Utsubora‘s deserves such love.
I won’t deny that my discovery of Utsubora is a result of a ‘manhunt’ for all things that are Nakamura Asumiko. I also won’t deny that it was at the end of my list. At that time, like every Asumiko fan, my priorities were getting her BL and that is it. Anything outside of BL is unknown to me so to see Utsubora on the shelf and deciding to bring it home (over possible BL titles I could bring home) was a giant leap of faith. I didn’t know what to expect with the title but at that time, I found myself unable to resist the lure of a girl’s stare, biding me to read her story.
The strangest of seductions
I think by now some people might actually know my weakness for manga with really pretty covers.
And Utsubora’s no exception. A bright bold color against a stark, almost haunting image of a girl. It’s simple yet striking. I remember being awed when I saw the Japanese version of the first volume on a tower of Nakamura titles. It truly stands out and has an impact that lures anyone to pick it off a shelf.
Out of the lot, it’s the only cover that stirred my curiosity and excitement. To this day, Utsubora has become one of my personal favorites in terms of book covers. Not only did it get the usual “ooohs~” and “aaahs~” but upon gazing back at the girl’s eyes, I find myself asking “What story do you have to tell me?”
With just a cover, I wanted to know what Utsubora was all about. Who was this girl? And what will happen to her? I had an intense desire to see what her story is all about only to find myself in a web of mystery which left me in agony for a year or so, at least until the next volume’s out.
Strangely, when I saw the second volume online, I didn’t get the same intense feeling. Not that the cover isn’t as pretty, but the mesmerizing effect of seeing and holding the book in the flesh didn’t really happen until I got my book. The Utsubora covers have a strange physical charm that it’s hard not to be lured by it.
The US Vertical version, which combines both volumes, is more haunting with the white background against the heroine. Looking at the US cover makes the heroine look like a ghost. It almost presents itself as a ghost story. Almost.
Fortunately (for me at least), Utsubora‘s not a gothic horror tale filled with ghosts. If it were, I wouldn’t dare touch it with a ten foot pole.
But it does have some ‘ghosts’: the metaphoric and perhaps literary kind. The ones that you keep in your closet. The ones that you can touch, taste, feel with much realness that your body trembles at their presence.
That’s what Shun Mizorogi felt when he first saw Miki Sakura, the estranged younger twin sister of the girl he met in the party, Aki Fujino. The girl had strikingly similar features as Aki. She also shared similar memories as her, even when she confesses how estranged they were as sisters. Shun’s encounter with Miki was a trigger to many questions that confound not only the death of Fujino but also the credibility of his new work, Utsubora.
And I’ll stop there. One slip of my stupid tongue might give away the intricate mystery Nakamura has built. She’s laid a web of secrets quite early in the comic that should I reveal any past this I might just end up telling the whole story. This is possibly the most difficult part of this review. Because the best part of Utsubora was how these secrets were revealed.
A contemporary noir.
To me, the comic reads like a good noir: a very modern noir. You’ve got your detectives, your dead body, your anxious hero, and your seductive vixen who is nothing but trouble. But Nakamura’s art style and calculated execution makes this noir formula quite contemporary.
Compared to her other works, Nakamura’s style in Utsubora is quite minimalist. It is bare not because she has nothing to draw, but she draws what needs to be drawn. The images, expressions and landscapes pop and extend in careful panels designed to immerse its readers to particular aspects of the characters’ life, emotions and their conundrum. Her pages are unafraid to be sparse or dark. It establishes the desperation which she carefully builds throughout her story. It feels like a classic noir but it doesn’t feel old fashioned at all. In fact Utsubora‘s quite an exciting and refreshing read. Brooding and desperate as it is.
Nakamura chooses her drawings well, as if flirting with her readers by revealing only so much at such a time, especially in the first part of the story. However, as the second part of Utsubora begins, she exposes her story with such vulgarity that it’s nowhere near an old noir. Each page becomes more and more graphic as she reveals the sexual exploits of her characters. And since Vertical’s not in the habit of censoring pages, readers have to prepare themselves with scenes that might be unusual and possibly uncomfortable for a casual English manga reader. Of course, Nakamura executes these scenes with such beauty that even their downfall becomes beautiful.
And that’s the thing with Utsubora, really. Tempting as it is to turn this story into a total disaster, Nakamura placed so much care in placing her pieces that in the end it creates a mystery where everything is in its place. And it’s carefully paced in a way that you just keep on reading to reveal more pieces. And that’s quite rare in manga, nowadays. Seriously.
But will this noir be for everyone? Is Nakamura for everyone?
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from Utsubora as a reader, I realize that I’m one of a kind. As I said, I love this title. I love this title enough to put it in my top 20 favorite manga. I love this title enough to constantly remind Vertical that they should license this. But once the English version started rolling in and my academic life started to take my life I learned the following: (1) Not a lot of people love mysteries (I’ve been told that mystery manga is not profitable genre among English manga readers), (2) Not all fujoshi read works of BL authors outside of BL, (3) Not all fujoshi appreciate BL authors writing het, (4) Not all fujoshi enjoy Nakamura’s lanky, almost shoujo-esque art.
In short, this is possibly a title that would possibly be loved by me alone and perhaps hundreds of me who may have pre-ordered this from Vertical. Vertical has already been blatant about saying that Utsubora’s not doing well in the pre-orders and that saddens me because it’s a fantastic title. What’s sadder is that because this venture is potentially unsuccessful, Vertical won’t be bringing in other Nakamura titles outside of BL. Not that Chicken Club is a possibility. Personally, I entertained the idea that they might bring her gothic lolita artbooks/anthology Le Theatre d’A & B or maybe her josei and somewhat yuri title Tetsudou Shoujo Manga (but that’s not exactly for Vertical either). Jmanga actually introduced her to English readers with her famous BL title Dokyuusei but with the site folding this month, even that is disappearing.
Thus I feel conflicted. I feel happy that Nakamura’s leaving her legacy in English-translated manga with Utsubora. But at the same time, I feel sad that this is her only title around. Nakamura Asumiko’s an amazing artist and if I had my way, I’d love to get her story out there because she is as (if not more) diverse as other well-loved female artists in the west such as Yoshinaga Fumi.
Her story with Utsubora doesn’t end with her book alone but also with the stark reality on the limits of the US manga industry and English-reading fandom. Fans have been clamoring for something new and fresh from the usual formulaic manga. Fujoshi fans particularly wanted to see Nakamura in English. And then here’s a publisher who does their best to bring something new with Nakamura’s work and yet somehow, despite various campaigns, it’s just not happening.
That said, I’m keeping my hopes up with Utsubora. Not sure if people who were hesitant to get the manga will find this review useful. I hope they do. Then let’s fangirl or fanboy together.
Utsubora may not find its charms now, but what I’m hoping is that when this manga hits the shelves, people, even non-manga readers, will be take a leap of faith and be lured by a young girl’s stare, begging them to unravel her story. I’m quite sure they won’t regret reading it. I didn’t.
Utsubora by Nakamura Asumiko
Published by Ohta Shuppan (Japan), Vertical, Inc. (US)
Serialized in Manga Erotics F