Jaded and single thirty-year-old career woman Satoko Tawada has gained a new interest in her life in mentoring Mashuu Hayama, a twelve-year-old boy she sees playing with a football in the local park in the evenings. But is she really mentoring – or meddling? For she has never met Mashuu’s family and although the two establish a rapport through their mutual love of soccer, Satoko realizes she may be entering dangerous territory when she has to pretend to be a neighbour or a friend of the family’s around other people. Mashuu mentions a father – largely absent because of working long hours – and a younger brother Ryouichi. But as Satoko begins to tutor Mashuu in Social Sciences, she invites him to her flat (no parental permission given, again). Mashuu’s amazed reactions to her electrical gadgets delight her: “A Roomba!!!” and, as they chat together, she realizes the gulf between his school life ‘now’ and her memories of being twelve ‘then’. But it’s when Mashuu reappears at her flat, desperate with worry because his younger brother hasn’t come home and she goes – against her own better judgement – into the family home, that she sees unmistakable clues as to why the boys’ lives are so disordered. Has she carried her meddling too far? What, as the adult, would be the responsible action to take?
It’s to mangaka Hitomi Takano’s credit that even though she’s telling the story from Satoko’s point of view, it’s her work boss – and ex – Shiikawa-san who delivers the hard truth when he learns what she’s been doing. Of course, he may also have ulterior motives for speaking to her in this way, but his reaction is one that parents will relate to as he tries to make her understand how her interest in Mashuu could be viewed as unnatural – although with blunt, and brutal honesty. But these painful encounters show what a clever and skilful mangaka Takano is, inviting us to sympathize with Satoko and then reminding us (as her conscience pricks her) that she’s in danger of getting out of her depth. “I’m an outsider, so I can’t go any deeper into his life…but I can be by his side.”
Which brings us back to the thorny issue of Shota. In my review of Volume 1, I mentioned the fact that in the West, we tend to shy away from any suggestion that adults can have feelings of attraction toward children. But in the 4-page Afterword, Takano is determined to discuss the issue, reminding us of ‘Ms. H-Sawa’ her second editor (who joined the team after Chapter 2) who seems from the description to be utterly Shota-obsessed. Is Takano teasing us here, or making gentle fun of her Shota-mad editor? Because if it weren’t for these four pages, it would be perfectly possible to read My Boy #2 and interpret lonely Satoko’s feelings for Mashuu as maternal (she has no children of her own) or big-sisterly. But there they are. Can Shota be viewed as a purely aesthetic concept? It’s really difficult for us in the West, as we see anything portraying children in a remotely sexually objectified way as a taboo, a no-go area. And to be fair – apart from the Afterword which can be read in as a jokey tease directed at ‘Ms H-Sawa’ – My Boy reads as a slice-of-life about a lonely woman getting over a failed relationship (with hints as to why it might have gone wrong).
The art is just as attractive as before, with Mashuu depicted as an ethereally beautiful child. And the mangaka conveys the story very effectively through the way she uses panels and Sataoko’s internal dialogue; in Chapter 7 ‘Boundary’ she delivers a vital revelation after a page-turn so it’s doubly impactful on the reader.
Takano weaves a compelling but disturbing narrative in which none of the adults’ motives can be seen as wholly selfless. Mashuu is particularly well observed, although, perhaps a little ‘young’ and unworldly for twelve in the way he is depicted. But by making him (and his classmates) children in the final year of grade school, poised between childhood and the coming of puberty and the teenage years, the mangaka is underlining the fleeting beauty that fades and changes as children grow into their adult selves.