Last year Kodansha brought us a variety of titles from Shuzo Oshimi, including the ongoing series Welcome Back, Alice and legacy titles like Devil Ecstasy and Avant-Garde Yumeko. That devotion to bringing more of the author’s work to the West has continued into 2023. Today I’m here to take a look at the latest release, Sweet Poolside. Does it impress? Let’s find out!
The story follows Toshihiko Ota, a middle-school student who is bullied by his classmates because of his smooth hairless body, which is like that of a baby. Toshihiko’s world is changed when he meets Ayako Goto, a girl in the swim club just like him but who is ashamed of the amount of body hair she has.
Toshihiko instantly feels a connection to her, given that she’s struggling with her own body in the same way he is. She’s worried about being teased or made fun of, so won’t even compete in contests because of it. When Ayako realises how nice Toshihiko’s skin is, she asks him how she can become just like him and free herself of this anxiety.
After Toshihiko reveals that he wishes he had body hair and doesn’t do anything special, he asks Ayako why she doesn’t shave and she replies that it’s painful. Toshihiko quickly realises that it’s painful because she’s not gentle enough and when Ayako asks him to shave her, he readily agrees which leads to an odd relationship where they meet up after school so Toshihiko can shave Ayako’s arms and legs.
This single-volume story explores themes we often see in Oshimi’s works. It’s about self-discovery, growing up and coming to terms with who you are. Unusually for one of the author’s works (particularly an early one like this), the storyline is very focused and doesn’t go off into any eccentric developments. Here we simply have a boy and girl who can relate to each other’s struggles and build a slightly odd friendship because of it. That’s not to say there isn’t some melodrama, because of course there is, due to romantic tension that creeps up between the two. But no matter what happens, it never feels like Oshimi allows anything to get away from him.
But for as much as I praise Oshimi for being restrained with Sweet Poolside, a part of me wishes there was a wild plot twist somewhere along the way because unfortunately what’s here feels underwhelming. It’s not helped by the fact that there’s not enough time to explore much of Toshihiko and Ayako’s lives outside of their after-school meetings, which means their personalities are tightly tied to their body image anxieties. They’re not unlikable characters, but I think many readers will want something more to grasp onto – particularly if you’re not just reading this because you’re a fan of the creator.
As someone who has now read the majority of Oshimi’s work, I find Sweet Poolside interesting from the perspective of being able to compare and contrast with his other output, but if you’re just picking this up because you find the premise interesting, then I do think you’ll come away disappointed because the story is quite one-note. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s inoffensive, which is not something you can usually say about the kind of stories Oshimi comes up with.
In terms of artwork, this also doesn’t deliver anything special. Released in 2004 it was Oshimi’s second serialised series after Avant-garde Yumeko and before Devil Ecstasy, so the art is rough around the edges and not terribly attractive to look at. Characters often look off-model, but the backgrounds are detailed enough to help set a scene and it’s easy to follow the flow of a scene from page to page. There is some inconsistency in drawing Ayako with her body hair too, which is a minor detail but given it’s what the whole story is about, you’d hope it wouldn’t be something that’s missing when it shouldn’t be.
As previously mentioned Sweet Poolside comes to the West thanks to Kodansha where it has been released under their Vertical imprint and translated by Shi-Lin Loh. The translation reads well with no issues of note. This manga has also inspired a live-action film, released in Japan in 2014. Although at the time of writing that doesn’t appear to be available in English, but it may well turn up in the future.
Overall, Sweet Poolside is underwhelming, unless you’re a fan of the author’s work. There’s fun to be had in comparing it to his other works and I respect that this is a more restrained story than we usually see from Oshimi, but that’s not going to be enough for the vast majority of readers unfortunately.
A free preview can be read on Kodansha’s website here.