We’re doing a roundtable on YKK. Bill provides some background and a slightly acerbic take here. My starrier-eyed view…written before reading Bill’s…is below.

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It’s an odd experience going into a series with no expectations at all. I read the first volume of YKK because Bill recommended it and provided scans. Before I opened it up, I’d never heard of it and had no idea what it was about. It was only when I got to the end of the first volume with its (very mild) cliffhanger ending that I even realized that there might be more than one book in the series (I kind of enjoyed thinking that the whole thing just ended on the cliffhanger, actually…but Bill assures me that it doesn’t.)

Anyway, that sense of disorientation — of not being sure what’s going to happen next — was certainly part of manga’s appeal to me initially. The first manga series I saw, I think, was Ranma 1/2, by Rumiko Takahashi. Everything about it caught me flat-footed. I know how romantic comedies work, and I know how action/adventure works, and I even have a sense of how they can be fit together in various ways. So Ranma looked familiar — but then the main character kept changing into a girl…and his adversary kept changing into a pig…and his Dad kept changing into a panda…and there were bizarre martial-arts-figure skating battles…or cooking fights….. It was all just vertiginously, gloriously wrong.

As I’ve read more manga that sense of giddy alienation has died down somewhat; manga has it’s own cliches and interests, and you do eventually start getting a feel for what they are. Ranma does remain fairly bizarre by any standards, though, and YKK does as well, though in a quieter way. Indeed, the determined quietness is itself the strangeness. The series is set (as Bill pointed out) in what seems to be a post-apocalyptic future. Much of the countryside is under-water; travel is difficult, civilization has devolved back to an at least somewhat pre-industrial level. At the same time, remnants of high-technology persist; one of the main characters, Alpha, is a human-looking android.

So…post-apocalypse, dying civilization, androids…we should strap ourselves in for pulp adventure, right? Well, not quite. Alpha, is an unassuming young women who owns a coffee shop; at least in the first volume, her robotness has almost no practical effect on her life (her biggest hurdle is that she effectively has food allergies because of the way her digestive system is designed.) The only gun in sight isn’t fired, or even loaded; Alpha keeps it as a token of remembrance. The narrative drifts forward through mostly mundane episodes; Alpha goes shopping and meets a gas station attendant; Alpha goes to a council meeting and dances and gets drunk. Even when there is something that could loosely be described as “action” it’s played down and smoothed out. Alpha is hit by lightning at one point…but a friend takes her to the hospital, and she’s fixed up in no time. A water spirit appears — but she’s harmless, a passing stroke of beauty, unattainable but mysterious.

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I like especially the way that the boy’s stance does and does not echo the water spirit’s; on the one hand, he’s stiff and awkward, while the lines of her body are fluid, lithe, and animal…but on the other hand, his back is bent in a way that ends up being almost unconsciously graceful, while his hair blows to the right, slanting like the mountain and like the water spirit’s body. He’s watching her, and distanced form her, but he’s also part of the whole picture; integrated into nature and watching it, too.

The water spirit seems to encapsulate the book’s theme and it’s purpose; she’s a mythological embodiment of nature, seemingly unaffected by the cataclysm which has transformed the world. The book is suffused with a longing that goes not so much forward or backward in time, but outside it; a sense that human struggle will end in nought, where it began, and that that’s fine, or good even. Rather than an apocalyptic vision of man destroying the world, YKK presents a world that, at bottom, man can’t affect all that much. That sense of disempowerment doesn’t alienate man from the world, though; on the contrary, it makes him (or her, or it) more at home. And indeed, the water spirit comes, later, and on her own terms, to comfort the boy, before slipping away again.

It’s very difficult for me to imagine a book like this being created by an American; the relationship to nature, and the trust in passivity, just don’t seem like things that would come easily out of a Judeo-Christian culture. At the same time, the post-apocalyptic landscape and the android are clearly borrowed mirrored in lots of Western sources (Bladerunner springs to mind, for example). Again, it’s the familiarity and alienation together which make the work pleasurable and fascinating.
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In his review, Bill argues that YKK seems nostalgic and reactionary; using a utopian apocalypse to avoid the actual intricacies of living with nature. I think that’s a fair cop…though, on the other hand, I’m not sure that “reactionary” is always and everywhere a bad thing. Humanism —the mythologizing and aggrandizing of humanity — is part and parcel of progressivism. The mythologizing of a transcendence which isn’t human tends to be linked to more traditional, often reactionary ideologies; Christianity or, in this case, Buddhism (and perhaps a traditional pantheism?) YKK is certainly somewhat cloying in its conservative serenity — enough so that I’m not sure I’ll ever read the whole thing. Still, that serenity also has an appealing ruthlessness. Humans won’t fix anything, and the planet isn’t going to care. Not practical advice, exactly, but not a preposterous prediction either, as these things go.

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As I was writing, it occurred to me that the themes I’m discussing here (especially the implicit comfort in human disempowerment) are somewhat similar to the themes I discussed in my review of another backward-looking future, C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy. If you’re so inclined, you can read that essay here

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