Dirty Work (1998) and System of Romance (2000) are two shorts by manga-ka couple Sadamoto Yoshiyuki and Takaha Mako. I came upon both of these a good amount of years ago, but due to a recent IRC conversation they returned to the forefront of my mind. Seeing as I haven’t done it already, I figure I’ll write a little about these two quirky short stories.
I don’t really read much manga (I’ll get into the why of that in a post that may or may not come to being) but a lot of the manga that I do enjoy tends to have something of a strong grounding in reality; more so than the types of anime I watch. I really enjoy it when these realistic settings are used as stages for somewhat dark–but not too dark–stories, especially those in which emotional teenagers are instrumental to how things play out. I also like weird short stories, and considering these tales have only enough substance to really fill around 30 pages, I quite like them.
Before I continue with the rest of this post, I’d like to direct you to links for both of these stories here and here. My spiel has spoilers, so if you really care it’s better to read the stories before reading my thoughts on them.
The main theme that runs across both of these stories is that of young people starting to grasp the concept of Adult Life while in the midst of doing stupid spur-of-the-moment things that only teenagers do. In Dirty Work, Tatsuo carries out vengeance for his childhood friend turned one-sided lover, Kana, against people that assaulted her (sexually or otherwise) in their farming town known for producing eggs and fertilizer. In System of Romance, the (near as I can tell) un-named main character finds out that a man she met on a singles chatline–who she then had sex with–is in fact more dangerous than she thinks.
Dirty Work in particular portrays a setting that is very real in its gritty nature–a farming town known only for its “eggs and chicken shit” in which teenagers carry out acts of violence in the name of love. Tatsuo and Kana are both well aware of their situation, and what they’re doing. There’s nothing glamorous about Tatsuo’s assaults, and there’s similarly nothing glamorous or romantic about his failed attempts to win the love of his already-taken childhood friend Kana. The characters exchange down to earth, cold dialogue with subdued expressions on their faces.
There is a strong sense of hopelessness–these characters won’t ever be released from their life of “eggs and chicken shit.” Tatsuo applies to universities in Tokyo expecting to fail, so he has a bunch of local backups. Kana is resigned to her fate as a farmer, even when Tatsuo offers an alternative. However, in the middle of all this hopelessness is an attempt to move forward. Tatsuo doesn’t kill his target this time–he lets him live. The two characters speak of re-incarnation, in hopes of attaining a life better than what they’re living now.
The saddest part of the story is how Tatsuo resigns himself to the fact that he’ll never be with Kana. Because of this, he’s forward and unashamed with his advances towards her, knowing they’ll fail. He knows he has nothing left to lose. They’re both half-assing it like teenagers always do, but that’s what makes the story poignant and realistic.
System of Romance is more of a straightforward story about The Mistakes of Youth, but it ends on a twist. The girl in System of Romance is portrayed as a laid back girl without a care in the world. But unlike, say, Hirasawa Yui, the girl in Romance is simply bored with life, and doesn’t really think about the consequences of her actions until put in a near death situation–one which was in part brought about by her own foolishness.
In the process of being raped by the serial killer/rapist she met on a chatline and then proceeded to have sex with a year ago, the main character regrets how she’s acted towards her family, and her friends. She realizes just how cruel she might have been towards others when she thinks it’s all too late, and regrets not having lived a better life. However, at the end she’s spared. The murderer doesn’t kill her. Resolved in the fact that he’ll be caught soon, the murderer leaves her. At a flash-forward near the end, she comments that no one else made her heart flutter quite like he did.
While more of a quirky and dark love story than anything else, System of Romance does a good job of capturing the sort of feelings we’ve all had at some point regarding our life. We regret the little jabs we’ve made towards people we hold dear–it may not be in as extreme a situation as the one detailed in the story–but it happens to all of us, I’m sure. However, in a way, the twist at the end tells us not to worry about it. Even though she was put in a near death situation due to her own stupidity, it turned out to be one of the best experiences of her life. Sure, it’s a not great moral, but it’s an interesting way of looking at what would have otherwise been a typical story about considering the outcomes of your actions.
Sadamoto has a way of depicting teenagers that’s extremely different from any other artist out there. They’re young characters, but there’s a hard-edged adult nature to them, which I think comes through in his angular style and somewhat lanky character designs. The characters in here are also very plain looking. Well designed mind you, just very down to earth, which suits the stories well. Sadamoto similarly does a good job depicting both rich urban and rural Japanese settings, which inch their way into panels as needed, and are gracefully left out when not. This use and lack there of creates a good variety of moods for each set of panels that complements Takaha’s dark narratives.
One thing I love about manga is that it’s a great medium to tell visual stories that probably wouldn’t get the kind of funding needed for any sort of anime production. Dirty Work and System of Romance are both great stories that make wonderful use of their medium, and deliver something not usually seen in a lot of mainstream works–be it anime, movies or visual novels. This brand of gritty realism matched with youth drama is not something we often see come out of otaku media, and because of that both of these stories are quite refreshing, and I hold them as all time favourites.
So please, someone, translate Archaic Smile.