One of the manga conventions that came up in discussing YKK was the Perfect Girlfriend. The first volume presents Alpha as the sort of single girl readers might desire, though later volumes might shoot me down. Either way, she fits the ideal: demure, bright, beautifully plain.
This type shows up enough in manga for males, often played for romcom laughs. Boy meets girl through wizardry, tear in reality, adminstrative fiat. They spend a lot of time together, and boy thinks to himself, “it’s almost like we’re a married couple” as his nose erupts with blood. Video Girl Ai, Oh My Goddess, etc etc… I think it’s an 80s/90s trend, though the teenage wish, “If only everyone else in the world were wiped out in a cosmic explosion, then she’d have to love me, or just have sex with me, I’m not picky,” that’s probably eternal.
The sexual dynamics are usually very 50s, the plots wish fulfillment. So the chief pleasure’s in seeing wishes unfulfilled as the genre’s twisted into new shapes. The strangest shape of all, and the preemptive last word, Minami’s Sweetheart (?????) appeared from 1985-87 in Garo and elsewhere. The first work by Shungiku Uchida (????), it hints that she would become a key feminist author of comics like We Are Reproducing and the autobiographical novel Father Fucker. In Dreamland Japan, Fred Schodt profiled her work and unconventional personal life– each of her children has a different father, none Uchida’s lover.
Minami’s Sweetheart, her first major work, takes the fantasy for what it’s worth, more or less. Minami’s a high school senior and nerd with a six-inch girlfriend.
They live together in his room “like a married couple,” he says, as his would-be wife’s mother-in-law yells at him to study harder. Chiyomi, his sweetheart and several years his junior, shrank for no good reason one day. Now he keeps her in a doll house by his bed, sneaks her food when his mom’s not looking, and takes baths with her. For vague reasons he keeps her a secret; I’m not sure if her family’s contacted Missing Persons.
Their interactions teeter between sweet nothings and adolescent drives. He cares for her, makes her clothes (including an Iowa State sweater, go Cyclones!) and at one point thinks of her as his kid. Then they get into an argument because her breasts are growing and she wants a bra. His fantasies of them as equals make do when he’s not fretting about the tactical impossibility of sex. When it gets really bad and everyone’s asleep, he sneaks in some “onanie,” the Japanese-via-German-via-Genesis 38:9 loanword for masturbation. His real trouble, though, is not his tiny girlfriend: it’s that he’s awful with the ladies. When faced with a much cooler couple who talk of marriage after graduation, he squirms. Back home, Chiyomi greets him cheerfully, far from the complications of a the adult world.
Its complications include his mother, always hidden behind a nagging word balloon, and Nomura, a sensual classmate who toys with him. By comparison, Chiyomi is his very own toy. In fact, he imagines her as a doll in an early nightmare, pulling her limb from limb. Later, he says “you’re my toy” while thinking out loud. She agrees, teasingly calling him a pervert.
This is a female character roundtable, and at first glance Chiyomi’s not much of a character. She’s quite two-dimensional, just as Minami would imagine her. And the trick is that he’s imagined by Uchida. Men often enough have trouble writing believable women; here Uchida writes an adolescent boy who’s kind of pathetic with great sympathy. She lets him create Chiyomi, a Perfect Girlfriend so perfect reading about her is almost viscerally painful– since I’m convinced she’s his elaborate way of avoiding real interactions with real women.
In the ending (yes, I’m ruining it for you), Minami ventures out into the world with his sweetheart. They hop the train for the hot springs. Chiyomi, happy and bright, peers out from his shirt pocket at the view. A series of older women wonder why this kid’s walking around talking to himself. After they climb a mountain, a car of young punks rounds the bend and knock him off the road. You can fill in the details. On the last page, some time later, he walks past a young mother with her kid, asking why her pet bird died. “Because it was small.”
I read somewhere that Uchida wept on drawing the last chapter. Reading the blog reviews and so forth, most people read it as a “Pure Love” story, which is how I guess the two TV versions played it. Others in the genre feature young lovers whose feelings stay pure forever thanks to the sweet embrace of tuberculosis, war, etc. The only tragedy in Minami’s Sweetheart is adulthood. Put away childish things, like a boy’s elaborate fantasy of a doll that’s his girlfriend. Still, you could read it as a magical romance, though what a strange one it is. The story’s strength is that Uchida never commits either way, never judges.
Dovetail: The name of Uchida’s first baby? Alpha.
Update: the critic Adam Stephanides drops by in the comments (scroll past all the Victorian lit), and notes his own fine review of Minami’s Sweetheart.