How do you find out about new manga? Do you browse reviews, do you stroll by bookstore shelves to see which title would get your attention, or do you have a go-to person who recommends you titles s/he would think you’d like?
I found out about Kaori Ozaki pretty much by accident. When I used to buy manga in bulk, I made it a point to check out the first volumes of any new Tokyopop license. Ozaki’s Immortal Rain (aka Meteor Methuselah), like most of that publisher’s list, didn’t get any marketing or buzz. They were always too busy promoting Stu Levy’s Princess Ai, I guess, so it was really up to the readers to test out any of the new series and review them for their friends.
The initial impressions of Immortal Rain weren’t great; too many people claimed that it was too silly and derivative, with the main character Rain, ripping off Vash the Stampede’s personality point by point. I saw where they were coming from, but maybe I was a nicer person then so that’s why I stuck with the next volume, and then another, and then I was starting to push all of my friends to read it. Next thing I knew, I was making a fansite and stalking Yahoo Japan auctions for any merchandise, any ephemera related to the series.
Her latest series, Kamisama ga uso wo tsuku (God Lies), leaves the fantasy world of Immortal Rain behind to follow the coming-of-age experiences of eleven-year old Natsuru.The series begins with an older Natsuru narrating back to the events of the summer when he was eleven. He was graduating from elementary school and the only thing that he looked forward to that summer was soccer. Natsuru was a soccer fanatic — he was good enough to be considered the team’s ace — and would’ve stayed a fanatic if not for the new soccer coach, Maruo.
After a disheartening day of practice, Natsuru heads home, only to notice an abandoned kitten under the walkway bridge. He brings it home, even though his mother, a light novel writer, is deathly allergic to cats. He gets found out anyway, and when he runs out of the apartment to figure out what to do with the kitten, he stumbles on to his classmate Suzumura, passing by his building with her younger brother in tow. She agrees to keep the cat, and from that moment, these two shared the secret that would change them forever.
Yet again, Ozaki uses two young children as her main characters. In Immortal Rain, Machika’s innocence was used as the counterbalance to Rain’s hopelessness. Here, Natsuru seems to be seeing the real world for the first time. While it hasn’t been mentioned if he had a difficult childhood, he seems to be starting off with a difficult adolescence. His father passed away from cancer, he’s had to transfer to a new school, he has to deal with a mother who barely has time to prepare dinner — and even soccer, his sole consolation, is being ruined by a super-demanding douchebag of a coach. Even as a kid, Natsuru is already nostalgic for the days when life was simpler. He actually misses their former coach, a grandpa who just volunteered to show the kids the ropes. Even if Coach Maruo is better, Natsuru would rather put up with the older guy who didn’t play well if it means he could enjoy his sport.
In meeting with Suzumura and asking her to take care of the cat, he never expected that her life would be that different from his. If he had things rough, she had it rougher. The reason she and her brother were out late that evening was because she wanted to go grocery shopping for the end-of-day bargains. She was in charge of taking care of them, from the cooking to laundry and everything in-between. She pleads with Natsuru to keep her secret, because if anybody found out that they were living in what pretty much amounted to a rundown shack with no parental supervision, then they were going to be taken to child services.
As disappointing it may be for a Japanophile to realize that not even Japan is immune from issues of near-poverty and underemployment, I am glad that it’s addressed in these media. Japan isn’t all kawaii and fluffy all the time. Life is hard, growing up is hard, everything is hard. Most otaku would probably think that Natsuru’s mom makes a sweet living from her job, writing light novels about sisters and school uniforms, and staying at home but she can’t even take time to make her son a meal. And even Suzumura, who gets attention from her classmates for her developing body, has to grow up and take on very adult responsibilities all on her own. Is it right or wrong for her to do that? At this point, that’s not even important; it’s something she has to do, something that she doesn’t have a choice in. Childhood is becoming a luxury that even the richest countries can’t afford.
Kamisama ga uso wo tsuku is published in Afternoon by Kodansha.