Kasuga Takao is suffocating. Nobody in his small town or middle school seems to realize they are stuck in a meaningless existence and the weight of this knowledge isolates him. He reads Baudelaire and has unspeakable desires the likes of which nobody else in town would ever understand. He truly feels a man apart, and above, bearing the weight of an enlightened existence. Nakamura Sawa is a kindred spirit and delinquent who vocally doesn’t give a fuck what anybody thinks, and would rather be alone than lower herself to associate with the braindead soulless shitbug swarm. She wants to destroy the facade of the world and rip the respectable masks off all the hypocritical idiots in the town, and in this they find a companionship for which they are ready to break taboos, become outcast, and commit violence. After all, anything is better than succumbing to the weight of complacency and becoming a shitbug adult. And so these soulmates make a pact, that rather than be separated, they would be willing to die, and they want to go out with such blaze and outrageousness it shakes the town out of its complacency, and everybody will realize what shitbugs they are.
Things don’t go according to plan. And time doesn’t stop at that moment.
The power in this story comes from the time jump just after the middle of the series. Had it ended at a certain turning point the story would be powerful, still, but the stuff of myth, a Sid and Nancy-esque mad romance of eternal adolescence. You would have that exception to the rule to hold on to. But given the decadence of the first half the fact that the story ends as it does is a validation to all of us who have gone through something like this before. The book is saying that your turbulent, fucked up, mad romance of adolescence truly was something powerful. You weren’t a pale blip of the real thing. Your emotions were real, and you were not alone.
If you are currently undergoing adolescence, the ending will probably be intolerable to you. It will be the worst possible ending. The thing that was feared all along. I know it would have been to me. I would be filled with despair and rage. But standing just the wrong side of 25 looking back, as it were, I feel something that is like hope, but it’s too melancholy to really call it that. It’s not even a happy ending, really—just an ending that tells you life continues. It’s still left open and the protagonist is still haunted by dreams of his adolescence. I suppose it’s the hope that comes of being shown that you are not alone.
There is a great deal left unspoken and restricted to facial expressions and stretched silences, especially toward the end. And I applaud Oshimi for his restraint in this regard—there would be the temptation to explain, to try to make the reader understand, but he trusts the reader. That’s a damn hard thing to do, especially with feelings so indescribable you know others who have felt them fear they are the only ones who ever have, and that if you do not somehow articulate them they will continue to feel that way.
It is appropriate the final encounter takes place by the seashore. The scene, and indeed the extended ending, is inundated with the sense of drawing close to somebody, as though time collapsed against itself and nothing has changed, and then withdrawing to a maddening distance, ebbing and flowing like the tide. Because a shared history is a shared identity, and nowhere is that more clearly illustrated than here, but you can’t bridge years of separate ways.
I might as well say that my reading was deeply affected by the pool in which I saw my own life. In late adolescence I entered a maddening, tumultuous relationship replete with all the psychosexual fucked up shit (I was the ‘Nakamura’ if you have to know) and it ended abruptly, and badly. Contact was suddenly and utterly severed, which drove me mad at the time (I’m not exaggerating—I was not… doing well, mentally), and is severed to this day, which still leaves me with a deep sense of unease. It’s not even that I want loose ends tied up. They won’t ever be and I’d be deluding myself to think so. But I still dream about this person, almost as a symbol superimposed over the real person. The symbol is enduring, and archetypical, and of the mad essence of adolescence, but the ‘person’ is eight years gone from the one I know. I’ve moved on. I had no choice. Time moved no matter how much I tried to stop it and I found myself a different person. God, I still instinctively hate that phrase, “A different person”; it carries the smack of implication that adulthood and maturity are akin to acceptance and complacency. None of that is intended. I’ve been in a stable relationship for quite some time now, but I still feel this deep unease, like an unset bone.
That being said, I usually do not recommend things by age but I think the power of this story cannot be fully appreciated until you’re past adolescence, or even your early twenties. I’d say to read it at both points—if you are young, and you read it and are disgusted and disillusioned with the sell-out ending, I entreat you to put it aside for now, and just come back to it, in a few more years. I ask you to trust me. The beginning of the story was my story as well. I bet a lot of adolescent viewers of the anime are going to be disappointed if it ends as the manga did. Do not feel betrayed. The author DID understand your feelings, the story really WAS your story, and you haven’t been hoodwinked into a moral lesson or cautionary tale of the danger of the rebellious instinct. You’re not being told to sublimate your feelings and conform to a meaningless existence.
In the epilogue Oshimi says “If the story that follows is YOUR story, I believe this manga has a reason to exist in the world. And I believe you will meet again, somewhere, someday.” He doesn’t clarify who this person you will be meeting again is. He doesn’t have to.
Read this series. Vertical just released the last volume, so you won’t have to wait through the cliffhangers. Give it to people who think graphic novels can’t be literature in every wonderful, pretentious, exalting sense of the word. It gave me the same punch-to-the-chest recognition of the very essence of adolescence I got from Hermann Hesse’s Demian and even the set-up of the story is the same. I would like to ask Oshimi if this is a spiritual successor.