One of the categories in this year’s Field Library Reading Challenge is to read a manga. While our teenage patrons are very big into manga, it’s a category of book that many adults aren’t familiar with, unless they have teenagers who are manga readers. My own introduction into the genre was through my daughter, who helpfully explained to me that you don’t read these books the way you read other books (she explained this AFTER I tried to read left to right and got thoroughly confused), but I confess that since she hasn’t been living at home for the last several years, I got out of the habit and stopped reading manga. I was glad to have an excuse to return to the genre, and my first choice out of the box is a wonderful, absolutely gorgeous book, Siuil, a Run: The Girl from the Other Side, Vol. 1, by Nagabe, which I highly recommend even — perhaps especially — to people who think they don’t like manga.
The story is fairy-tale simple, until you start thinking about it. There is the Inside and the Outside. On the Outside there are monsters. If you touch one of them, or one of them touches you, you will be cursed and turn into a monster yourself. The people on the Inside are terrified of the Outsiders, to the point where they will hunt down anyone who they think is cursed, and destroy that person.
We first meet Shiva, a pretty fair-haired little girl, who’s out in the woods, picking what look like flowers. She’s concerned that she shouldn’t stay out there too long because “he” will be angry at her and scold her again. Almost immediately a tall, dark creature emerges from the shadows, beaked and with twisting horns coming out of its head, and we are surprised to discover that this is Shiva’s companion, whom she calls Teacher. She shows no fear of him, even as he reminds her she is not to touch any of the Outsiders, even he himself.
The story unfolds slowly, and it’s not finished by the end of this volume (I’m obviously going to read the other two to find out how it ends), but it is a powerful and poignant story, conveyed in gorgeous inky tones. It’s a story about the relationship between Teacher and Shiva, how Shiva first came to live with Teacher, and the danger they are both in from the people on the Inside. The depth of Teacher’s love for Shiva, even as he knows he could curse her with just a touch, even as he keeps secrets from her for her own good, is beautiful and real, and her innocence, which comes across as perfectly reasonable even as she starts to bump up against the real ugliness in her world, is a perfect foil to the darkness of Teacher and his world. We see empty villages, we see the results of the Insiders’ efforts to protect themselves from the Outsiders, we even see the mythical story that “explains” how the Outsiders first came to be and why they curse the Insiders. The relationship between Shiva and Teacher, anchored in such details as Shiva’s tea parties and the Teacher’s efforts to keep her safe inside the house, upends the obvious good vs. evil, righteous vs. monsters narrative that the Insiders would propagate.
I can’t discuss this book without talking about the art and how amazing it is. Teacher has the head (and hands) of a monster, but the rest of him looks like a tall, slender man, dressed in formal clothes of a hundred years ago (including a cravat), which makes his elongated head and beak, his twisted horns, his white eyes, look all the more strange and disturbing, but his appearance reflects the difference between his personality (gentle and protective) and the way the people on the Inside look at him (as a monster). The woods are fairy-tale dark, the trees tall and threatening, and the empty village hauntingly drawn. The house in which the two main characters live is detailed and lived-in, the Teacher’s study messy and cluttered, Shiva’s room comfortable and neat. The character who comes closest to looking like the stereotypical manga female is Shiva, but even she isn’t far from what a real young girl looks like, and her rounded face and bright hair heighten the contrast between her and her beloved Teacher and make her innocence visible.
If you think all manga are about violence and competition, if you think you don’t like manga in general, you owe it to yourself to read Siuil, a Run: The Girl from the Other Side. It may very well change your mind.