To the world outside, Chiyomi is a teenage girl who suddenly went missing, with no leads as to where she went or what happened to her. But her boyfriend, Minami, knows exactly what happened: she suddenly shrunk down to a tiny size one day and has been hiding at his place! Chiyomi has no idea what happened, and is scared to go back to her parents, so she’s living with Minami who looks after her, brings her food, makes her a home and so on. But can these two teenagers, in their unique circumstances, continue to maintain their relationship? Or is the size difference too much of a burden to overcome?
If the mangaka Shungiku Uchida doesn’t look familiar to you, don’t worry, this is her first manga to be translated into English, and she only has a few series under her belt, with her last series coming out in 1994. She has since written several Japanese films, and according to blurb on the back of this book, she’s a ‘cult celebrity/performer/acclaimed author’, so this release is a quite a special one for us in the West. The hardback cover not only makes this release stand out just from the quality of it, but it’s bigger than your average volume size too (not the page count, but actual size). This volume also comes from Fantagraphics, who are known for releasing indie and off-the-beaten-track comic books and such, so this release is unique on all fronts – but Minami’s Lover is one of Shungiku Uchida’s most popular series, with multiple live action adaptations of the original story, so is the manga worth discovering?
On the back of the book, Minami’s Lover is described as a ‘fairy tale’ which I can sort of see; the whole shrinking down of the heroine is similar to the likes of Thumbelina, and we never find out in the whole book how or why this has happened to Chiyomi. The story focuses solely on Chiyomi’s and Minami’s relationship and how they cope with their new circumstances since her sudden shrinking in size. The dynamic change, and the way it affects the characters will be familiar to anyone who’s in a relationship (romantic or otherwise) with someone who’s suddenly fallen ill long-term, or has a disability; the shrinking of Chiyomi affects EVERYTHING between the couple from their eating habits to their sex life. Minami really steps up to the plate at the start; he makes Chiyomi her own home, complete with bed, creates everyday items for her like a mini toothbrush, clothes and even brings her meals. On the other hand, Chiyomi is completely dependent on Minami. He can’t ask for help from anyone since no one knows about her, and Chiyomi’s condition prevents her from helping Minami in any way, as, for example, if he gets sick, he must see to himself as Chiyomi can’t bring him his medicine or anything. Although there are plenty of sweet moments between the two, like when they take baths together and talk frankly about their feelings, there are also moments that take their toll on Minami. It’s relatable when the manga is frank about the situation; Minami wants to just be a regular teenager, have sex like a normal person and not have to plan journeys in advance to accommodate his mini-sized girlfriend, but that has now become his daily life. So of course, he’s tempted to cheat when a regular sized girl shows interest in him, and it’s natural to feel frustration when he’s just trying to get homework done and Chiyomi shouts for his attention.
There’s a bittersweet tone throughout the whole book, that it mostly balances very well; for every story we get that has a frank look at how difficult it would be to be in a relationship with someone who is tiny, it also has another story showing why the pair try to make it work regardless. As mentioned in the blurb of the book, this is a sex dramedy, so there is nudity in this book and the sex act too, but it’s well handled. Minami calls himself a ‘horn dog’ a couple of times in the book and gets a boner at inappropriate times, but when he and Chiyori try to be intimate, because they’re young, inexperienced teenagers, there’s a relatable awkwardness to it, and the pair discuss their feelings and kinks together, as those in a healthy relationship should. It’s these moments that make you hope that these crazy kids can find a way to work it out.
Then the ending happens. I’m obviously not going to spoil it, but I will say that it’s very much a whiplash in tone, and reminded me, of all things, of The Music of Marie. Not in terms of themes or what happens, but in that the ending was so abrupt and odd that it made me wonder: what was the point of the whole story? I know sometimes it’s the journey, not the destination that matters, but it’s endings like this one that make me not want to re-experience the journey again, because the it left such a bad taste in my mouth. This is subjective; you may read this and think otherwise, but I do not feel that the bittersweet tone of this sex dramedy was leading to this sudden ending. It was suggesting something more open-ended, or maybe an amicable split between the two, but no, we got a third option that I doubt anyone reading would see coming.
This book was translated by H. Paige and the translation itself is easy to read but I did have two minor nit-picks. One line of inner dialogue used the wrong pronouns, leading to a moment of confusion as to whether the line was meant to match the person within the panel or not, and also due to the font choice, a few translation notes on the page marked with an asterisk (*) were missed due to the font style making it getting lost within the words. However, the translator does kindly provide a pronunciation guide at the back of the book, so if you want some tips on how to speak Japanese, you’ll find it here.
Minami’s Lover is an unusual story, from a unique mangaka, that I personally find difficult to recommend. If you like strange stories, with a distinctive tone and don’t mind the out-of-the-ordinary structure, then there’s a lot to admire here. Also, if you’re a collector of unique-looking manga books, this is definitely one to check out. If, however you prefer more conventional storytelling and endings that are less of a downer, then it’s best avoided. Although the story didn’t sit well with me in the end, I do hope we see more translations of Shungiku Uchida’s work in the future.
Our review copy from Fantagraphics was supplied by Turnaround Comics (Turnaround Book Supplies)