If you’ve been reading manga long enough then you’ll almost certainly have heard of Inio Asano, the mind behind series like Goodnight Punpun, Solanin and Dead Dead Demon’s Dededede Destruction. Just like how we know to look to Junji Ito for horror manga or Shuzo Oshimi for stories rooted in adolescence, you can count on Asano’s work to provide stories dealing with mental health and the darker side of humanity. Today I’m here to take a look at Asano’s A Girl on the Shore, which Kodansha have just rereleased in a collector’s edition format. Does it prove a must-have? Let’s find out!
A Girl on the Shore follows the story of middle-school students Keisuke Isobe and Koume Sato who live in a small seaside town. Unlike Sato who grew up in the town, Isobe recently transferred to the area and doesn’t have any friends or a support network there, due to his father being away for work most of the time. He asked out Sato the one person he got along with, but was turned down, due to her falling for the local playboy Misaki.
Unfortunately for Sato, Misaki has no intention of dating her and has only used her as an outlet for his sexual desires. When Sato does officially ask Misaki to date her, he turns her down and she’s left distraught as she realises that the sexual acts she partook in with him meant absolutely nothing. Frustrated and with no other outlet for her emotions, Sato asks Isobe to sleep with her.
As it turns out, Isobe also needs a way to lose himself in something and agrees to sleep with Sato. Their relationship from then on is something more than friends but less than lovers. Sato still doesn’t want to date Isobe, despite him clearly wanting to and that frustrates him, but at the same time, Isobe doesn’t want to be alone so he’s reluctant to put an end to it all. Both of these characters are dealing with depression and the emotional highs and lows that come with puberty. Their reliance on their sexual relationship to escape from their problems may seem ill-advised, but it’s easy to understand how they’ve ended up in this situation.
Mangaka Asano takes a delicate approach when it comes to conveying the mental state of the characters. It’s never explicitly stated that they have depression, not least because Isobe and Sato keep their hearts closed off from one another even while their bodies are connected. But the artwork and their subtle comments perfectly portray what’s going on inside their heads. Particularly with Isobe, who has a difficult backstory and struggles the most with forming connections at school as opposed to Sato who does have friends.
The two are using this relationship to prop one another up, but they’re keeping it a secret from their friends so they don’t talk at school. This means Isobe is still treated as an outsider, again something subtle that’s not stated outright but reading between the lines it’s clearly because of this being a small town where everyone knows and has grown up with one another. And being a small town is perhaps a big part of the problem for both these kids. There’s no escape from their problem, nowhere to go and no way to keep anything a secret (it’s remarkable really that no one finds out about the two sleeping together until near the end of the book). They’re drowning in their feelings, a feeling I think will be familiar to many of us either at their age or even later on as young adults. Sometimes the world is simply too much and you need to throw yourself full force into something else, which for these two is sex.
As the book goes on, the relationship changes as one or both of the characters begins to grow bored of or frustrated with the way things are progressing. And again, Asano does well to convey this through the art and the characters’ expressions rather than having to explicitly state it. Artwork has always been one of Asano’s strengths and that certainly remains true here. On each page, every panel is packed with detail, be it in the backgrounds or the characters’ expressions. Everything has a purpose and speaks to the mental state of the cast or adds to the atmosphere; none of it feels wasted.
It’s also worth noting that this work is very explicit when it comes to sexual content, which you may have gathered from the summary already. But while it is explicit, Asano hasn’t drawn it in such a way as to be tantalising. The purpose of these scenes is clearly to explore Sato and Isobe’s mental states and power dynamic, not to serve as arousing material for the reader. That’s a difficult balance to strike I feel, but as you’d expect with someone of Asano’s experience he pulls it off convincingly.
Still, because of the sexual content and because of how dark the subject matter of this work is (suicide is also a key theme, although also a spoiler to talk about in more detail) it’s not going to be for everyone. You need to be in the right mindset to read it and while it will reward your time with it, it’s still going to be difficult. I think it’s also a story that will mean different things to different people depending on your own life experiences.
I first read this when Vertical previously published it in 2017 and back then at the age of 22 I don’t think I understood it the way I have this time at 28. The mental health angle of it means a lot more than it did previously and I better understood what Asano was trying to express with the art. And I’m more sympathetic to the feelings of Sato whereas previously I actually disliked her without stopping to realise that she had been hurt. I’m not saying you need to be in your late 20s or older to get anything out of this, but it is indicative of the point that there are a lot of different things you can take from it depending on where you are in life.
As mentioned at the top of the review this is a collector’s edition re-release of A Girl on the Shore, this time from Kodansha under the Vertical imprint. I own the previous release as well and I have to say that there’s not a lot of value here if you also own that. Both editions compile the two volumes released in Japan and contain the same colour pages in the same size book. Other than the new one being a hardback with a new cover illustration, there’s nothing different here.
The translation is also the same as before, which is fine since it’s by Jocelyne Allen who has done a terrific job, but I think that’s one of the things that confuses me about this release. There’s nothing to touch up or fix and more than that, the previous book is still readily available in print. There’s a hefty price hike between the two as well, with the first release being priced at £18 and this one being £29, which is a lot for nothing more than a hardback format. This hasn’t resulted in a digital release either, which I argue would have benefitted the market more for those not wanting a physical product.
Overall, A Girl on the Shore is still an excellent read provided you’re interested in or comfortable with the explicit and difficult nature of the subject matter. If you’ve read a work by Inio Asano before then you’ll know what to expect and truly the author has excelled at conveying exactly what he set out to. Still, if this does sound like your cup of tea there’s a lot to take away from it and it’s a story that rewards repeated readings.
Our review copy from Kodansha was supplied by Turnaround Publisher Services.