Manga: NANASHI NO ASTERISM (ななしのアステリズム; 无名的星群)
Kobayashi Kina, Gangan/ Square Enix 2 volumes, ongoing
Comedy, Drama, School Life, Shoujo Ai, Shounen, Slice of Life.
This is the first part of a multi-essay examination of a wider role of “Iyashi” in the attraction of stories, characters and genres that are not strictly supposed to be Iyashiki-kei.
Spoilers and long-winded digressions ensue. This started as ONE BIG ESSAY and went out of control, so I am breaking it up. I am going to try to stick to using Class-S yuri examples (what aggregators sites call shoujo-ai) but might sneak some not-yuri-at-all works in as examples. This is like grasping at fog. Lets see what shakes out of the mist.
Sports girl Tsukasa Shiratori secretly likes Washio Nadeshiko but doesn’t want to creep her out. Then she accidentally finds out that Washio has been pining for Kotooka Mikage, the airhead-about-dating girl, who dates guys and drops them every 2 days. All three are in junior high-school; we can assume these dates are trivial. Kotooka in any case is too busy working at the family cake and coffee shop to have much free time. The three hang out together and develop strong bonds of friendship but the unspoken pining beneath the surface is adding tension to their carefree days together. Shiratori is too scared to tell Washio that she likes her, even as she knows that Washio longs for Kotooka, so she adopts an “I’ll support you” attitude to hide her feelings. By the end of chapter 7 we learn that Kotooka has figured out that Shiratori has a crush on Washio and that Washio is silently pining for her but she “can’t return those feelings”, whether because they are same-sex or because she really doesn’t feel any spark for anyone. All three just want their friendship to stay the way it is because the alternative is too complicated. Or perhaps the triangle must be completed and Kotooka has a crush on Tsukasa Shiratori?
I am using Nanashi no Asterism as an example because it is relatively unknown, undistinguished, and of-its-type. It is a master-piece in the original sense of the word; what an apprentice makes and shows to graduate. The author, Kobayashi Kina is making her debut serialisation with Asterism. Her day job is (3rd senior-most) assistant to Fairy Tail‘s sensei Hiro Mashima. Asterism is pleasantly drawn, not extremely shoujo-styled, comfortably rendered with token girly accessory design conceits relegated to chapter front and back-pages. The plotting, dialogue and characterisations are smooth and well-executed. It is published on a general, shonen-ish web magazine. There is no fanservice and the characters’ desires are respectfully handled. The “I will support you” trope has been done before, with more acknowledged lesbian self-identified characters, by writers such as Takemiya Jin. It undoubtedly dates back at least to Maramite.
A whiff of Komura Ayumi’s Usotsuki Lily even pops up when it is revealed that Shiratori has a twin “younger” brother Subaru who cross-dresses (mostly at home) “as a hobby”. So far he’s there for novelty and to dig up info on “the prince” from the other school who is interested in Shiratori. Subaru is also the reason that we thieving outlander leeches can read this piece of fluff. Manga featuring otokonoko are pure honey to a certain scanlation group.
Thanks also to Subaru, Mikage’s family bakery and coffee shop gets a small dose of crossdressing cafe. Perhaps Kina-sensei will push her luck and try for some light BL teasing with the prince” and the kouhai who just so happens to look exactly like his sister when crossdressing. Who knows?
It occurs to me that one further reason can be explored as to the “why are all the straight boys and girls reading stories about fantasy minority sexualities and gender expressions that represent queer folk according to our peculiar needs?” question.
I recall that many of the respondents in the Verena Maser surveys [https://heartsoffuriousfancies.wordpress.com/2015/10/03/the-way-she-acts-and-the-color-of-her-hair/] listed iyashi; soothing, healing as one of the attractions of their yuri (and yaoi) consumption. Obviously this goes beyond looking for
fap-fodder erotic or even romantic narratives. There is more than one way to “fetishize” gay characters. Exoticism hints at the effect but misses the point.
To explore further, I will need to mention nightmares. This will get a bit personal, hopefully I can write with enough sensitivity so that I am not inadvertently insulting as well. And with enough skill, so that it is not a big boring mess. Remember, it’s not about insulting “the other” It is all about
meeeeeeeeee ooops I mean “us” – whoever the heck that is.
A further digression:
Let’s say that you were caught up in a yuri or BL or even a heterosexual romcom tale that featured your favourite One True Pairing. Say as well, for the sake or argument that the author was a real jerk with pretensions towards plot-wizard-om and was about to jam your two fave charas together in that special moment where they would realise yadda yadda yadda… Except that asshole-sensei has thrown in a subplot that threatens to pull one of the charas away from their one big chance to confess their feelings towards each other, in order to save…
A starving wet kitten!
Or a puppy if cats aren’t your thing.
Save the cute animal or get the charas together?
Jeesh, there’s a point to this.
Real life is full of those hideous moments who you realise that you cannot save every starving wet kitten from inexorable pitiless shitty mortality and that you also realise that any efforts you make towards the same are just projections of your own feelings of mortality and helplessness. Moments like this are why we have elaborate delusion narratives involving faith and spirituality.
Cue the speech by DEATH from the end of HOGFATHER.
(Oh heck, why hold back? It’s the season…)
No one likes to have their noses rubbed in this while consuming a nice diverting, escapist tale. If the one character does not save the effing furball, the inevitable one true thang will be forever tainted by the shade of the dead creature. This can be useful in a story too, as foreshadowing of a hidden fatal character trait that will later pop out to blah blah blah… but again, this is all plot mechanics.
Ya save the kitty. Or the puppy. Screw the OTP. OTPs are made to be put off endlessly; it keeps the reader hooked. Even if the missed moment ends up as regret for what might have been and never came to pass. Then you end up with the will-not-be-named ero-mangaka-sensei ‘new-half’ endlessly chiding the salaryman for being “spineless”. FUCK YOU Kio-sensei. Even if you are tying to be cute about how both charas are lying to each other and themselves out of polite convention and self-delusion (this of course is an aside for folks who are up on Genshiken, Nidaime and Spotted Flower, especially SF ch12). How poignant! Perhaps Kiss-Shot-Acerola-Orion-Heart-Under-Blade can show up and try out some of her dodgy time-travel magic so that our hero can save the furball and still meet cute. We all know how that ends up.
Now if you are thinking that the next step in my argument might be that it is easier to frustrate the OTP if the charas are fakee-queer because us double scare quotes straight-riajuu consider them somehow “less”, please put that one aside too. The effect could be just as strong for vanilla het rom-com characters. The point that would slip, by this urge to segregate imaginary others into privileged and less privileged classes would be that we must not miss the root of the problem; that they are all imaginary others. The minority sexuality and gender expressions, the novelty of the pined-for loves are, as I mentioned in previous essays, treated like small quirky super powers.
Superman is most assuredly not allowed to have a morning coffee and a cigarette at an outdoor cafe and enjoy the New York Times Book Review section while random citizens fall from adjacent tall buildings and go splat on the pavement around him.
Superman has to save them all because we can’t and because the author is a jerk. Or because we are are bunch of greedy escapist readers who are avoiding our work, our troubles and our responsibilities. So why does a certain readership favor characters with synthetic minority sexualities and/ or gender expressions as their fave “others”, rather than say, superheroes?
This one is going to take some time. Too many variables; writing is hard work. Most creative whomping-up-of-shit is grinding, painstaking, coal-shovelling tedium. Add to this that the overwhelming majority of us are woefully unsuited to pure genius-level inspired creativity. And yet, I have no shortage of cheesy rom-com manga to read.
I started pawing at the fog-thin edges of something important about this when I woke up a few mornings ago from another nightmare. Perhaps that’s a bit dramatic; I don’t get nightmares, I get lame-mares. My sleeping imagination that jams occurrences and worries and physical discomfort from my crappy mattress together into nifty little scenarios is just at bad at spinning stories or any other kind of creative output as my wakened imagination. No: on second thought, even worse. Not at all scary. Just annoyingly disappointing, pointless and somewhat disillusioned. Banal. Repetitive. No win. Really Fucking Stupid and Pointless ™.
In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were filled with joy.
This, even more than my banal little dreams is the penultimate shock. Why can’t I at least have brilliantly creative dreams? Why aren’t my nightmares truly frightening or at least uncanny? This is unfair! A Twitter-bot could come up with better scenarios. Replace dream-making imagination with a machine. Step 2: Break the machine.
Across your dreams in pale battalions go…
Perhaps I sleep though all the good, original and satisfying ones. Who knows? Who cares? The only take-away from this insight is a renewed respect for those who earn their living by toiling to produce my fave fictions, as well as for the legion of fanfiction writers out there who refuse to let the best or even the good be the enemy of their dreams being vomited forth all wonky and half-formed across the page or screen and then dragged kicking and screaming onto AO3. My kindred: Idiot lecteurs, mes semblables, mes frères et soeurs; I love and salute you all!
The other take-away from my annoying way to wake up was a renewed appreciation of techne, in a wide sense: craft, lore, technology. Genius is 1% inspiration and %99 perspiration. The perspiration is earned struggling with the great messy toolbox of all that has come before trying to see if something in there can be grabbed and MacGyvered in such a way as to finish the damn job. Or make the mess look finished. Close enough for rock and roll. Nobody in the audience knows that you forgot half a page of your lines. Photoshop a real picture with a cheesy woodblock filter in as a background because the deadline looms. What does TV tropes have that I can steal? Can I take that small gag from episode #68 of Those Obnoxious Aliens (Rumiko Takahashi is a living, breathing bodhisattva of manga and anime who brings understanding and compassion to the world. RESPECT !!!) and turn it into an entire serialization if I use three characters instead of two and make them all girls?
It is early morning, it must be a Sunday because there is no traffic. It is cold, overcast and I am pushing a rusty 20 year old full-sized cargo van down the suburban streets of my town. Why? No idea. I guess it must be out of gas. Why not push it to the side of the road and leave it there? There’s no place to legally park it. The van will get ticketed and towed. How can I push this van, it should be too heavy? It rolls really well. Is it my van? I can’t remember, I might have borrowed it, I’m a bit hungover from last night. Besides, there is this stupid starving, freezing wet kitten in the van. How the effing hell it got there I can’t remember. Maybe I rescued it and then kept partying. If I leave it, it will die. What if the van gets towed and then they find a dead kitten in it? I’ll be in more shit. Keep pushing the van, think about alternatives when the van gets too hard to push.
Ditch the van, fuck the ticket and the tow, put the kitten under your jacket and find food and water for it. Uh, sounds like a good backup plan but maybe there’s a gas station around here somewhere. Plaintive mewling from inside the van and the sound of tires on damp asphalt…
This sucks, I think as I wake up.
A truly creative person would surely have better dreams than this but a pro would store even such as this away for the day they needed to apply “the craft” to it and whomp up something useful that will put food on the table. Shit, If I was a fan of Marina Abramovic I could get a PhD in performance art for something like this – if I was also willing to spend 3+ years and rack up a lifetime of student debt AND push stupid rusty vans around suburban streets for a lousy doctorate that would leave me as unemployable as I already am PLUS force me to write and spew bullshit about why the pointlessness of the situation is important in the context of whatever gets me the most cash and recognition in my patch of academia this month, etc…
Don’t laugh. Don’t get me started on how touchy and %120 shit-headed performance art prima donnas (I use this in an ungendered way) can get when they are in hot pursuit of a doctoral thesis piece at your gallery.
On the other hand, there is something very meta, almost performance art in getting a PhD in performance art…
Maybe someone with talent could turn this into an interesting one-shot. Or a few pages of funny fanfiction. Or a 3 chord screamo noise band tune.
“The kind man was never possessed by a cat in the first place”
There never was any cat.
Nothing wrong with using the craft to built up an entertaining mountain out of a molehill. Bonus points if you can do it without acting like a shit to all around you. Perhaps the latter reveals the true nature of fiction. In the real world, other folks are always in the way with their concerns and fuck yours. Only in fiction do others sometimes care enough.
And that, along with the legendary rodent’s fundament is the nub of the problem.
With Nanashi no Asterism and its hints of lesbian sexuality in a supposedly class-S yuri story, the entire “she would think it is gross” routine is, for the purposes of the story little more than another layer on the “I don’t want to ruin our friendship, I can’t move forward” dynamic. Putting a boy directly into the original triangle would lose some of the focus on an exclusive female elaboration of the problem. Japan is notorious for sex-segregated socials almost as much as for its hierarchically ordered social roles. In this setting, you fit in here, dress this way and act this way and everyone is either a girl or a guy. Salute and get back to your studies/ work. In high school, including the junior variant, you make fast friends and beautiful memories. Be sure to log each friend achieved and beautiful memory in your student handbook and be ready to show and explain your progress to your supervisor at the weekly progress report meeting. Gambatte!
Let’s conjugate irregular verbs. No need to have “the prince” as one of the three. Even so, “the prince” had already made an appearance before some guy waited at the school gates for Tsukasa Shiratori. (I’m not going to spoil EVERY last detail in Asterism) A further note: Nanashi means “No Name” or nameless. An asterism is a minor grouping of stars but also in typography, a triangle grouping of asterixes (or is that asterii?)
Apparently a significant number of the Japanese readers of a good little almost-yuri, almost-romance like this would, as some of the respondents in the Maser surveys, find this manga “soothing”, even “healing”. At least diverting. No one is going to lose an arm over it and it doesn’t look like one, two or even all three of them will get so bent out of shape if and when their desires are thwarted as to leap off any high buildings. Likewise there isn’t any bullying, so again, mercifully, no high buildings. (…Are there any creative activist types in Japan that could shame the Ministry of Education bureaucrats sufficiently that they fix their heads and policies and stop the slaughter ??? What does it take? Advertised tour packages for foreigners ending at the Ministry of Education building?)
“1am tip for writing a character of an identity you don’t share: imagine a teen of that identity picking up your book at their worst moment” — @mara_fitzgerald via Twitter
So far, the three main characters in Asterism are being written sympathetically enough; even as Subaru is being used as a cliche. He also is written as stuck with a massive sister complex, which is one of the stock cross-dressing explainers out there in lazy writer trope-land. Wind him up and send him marching for BL-ish squeee as he dons his twin sister’s clothes and sets out to divert “the prince” from his sis. Whatever…
This little manga probably won’t offend and severely annoy any in-real-life young lesbians, even as they may roll their eyes and mutter “If only, so easy, so tidy” And the straight boys and girls get a slightly exoticized restatement of a common complaint; a bit of distance from their condition is added to make the read engaging enough to follow but not resonant enough to disturb. Again, contrast Asterism to the treatment of similar situations offered by Takemiya Jin. They hurt. They can be survived but they sting and threaten with the potential to wound deeply. Takako Shimura’s Sweet Blue Flowers (青い花 Aoi Hana) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweet_Blue_Flowers turns such into a demolition derby of classic Class-S wounds. Fumi Manjōme should be crushed. Instead she perseveres and emerges.
And yet, even Aoi Hana does not deploy a catastrophe of such sudden and violent doom as to provoke a catharsis; an orchestration of pity, sorrow, rage and tragedy that leaves the audience shaken, purged and appreciative of their mundane, happy existences. Iyashi is not supposed to do catharsis, it merely offers a “safe space”. You don’t have to paddle a gondola, watch grass grow and paint dry on a wall for a respite. You can watch the cute youth bumble about, besotten with their first crushes instead.
Next up: More soothing, slightly melancholic class-S yuri crushing and more examination of Iyashi.