“We used to wait / We used waste hours just walkin’ around / We used to wait / All those wasted lives in the wilderness downtown.”
Inio Asano certainly has a way with words. Or it might be better to say he has no way with them. His stories seem translucent, any wisp of authorial voice appearing only in the fringes of unvarnished naturalism. He gives his characters’ interiority the drama they believe it deserves, but any magic in his stories is the magic of the world as it is. Characters interrupt each other and start again, tossing out simple observations and losing their trains of thought. You can feel the wind blowing between the staggered refrains of his mixed-up kids.
A Girl on the Shore is not a beautiful story, or at least not an intentionally beautiful one. Its heroine Sato is known as a Good Girl both at home and at school, but with her “friend” Isobe, she plays out stoic sexual fantasies with barely a hint of interest. Sato is manipulated into sex by the popular Misaki early on, and from then on, sex is just This Thing. It’s close and uncomfortable and transactional, a tool for use or a mild relief from boredom. Isobe asks if she’ll date him and begs for kisses, but she has sex with him in a bathroom stall and says no way. She lies naked with him on a sunday afternoon, but blushes while asking him about his birthday. Their bodies brush across each other as if seeking to melt into one, but they get no closer; the manga’s pages hide nothing, but their relationship only feels less intimate for it. “Maybe I kind of want to watch you play soccer” Sato says, and he does, and she waves, still uncertain if this is what or who she is.
Isobe is bitter and vengeful and used. He can’t see that Sato smiles when she puts covers over him while he’s asleep, or gets jealous when her friends talk about everyday dating minutiae; he’s a middle school kid, and so Sato’s hobbled emotional intimacy is just violence to him. “I guess it’s okay if you just use me, like a toy” he says, but he pushes and barbs and finds voice for his anger in other aggressions. Sato deletes images of another girl off his computer, and instead of seeing this as the confession it accidentally is, he lashes out. He lets himself get hurt, perhaps because at least that pain is real; better that than the empty days of being an instrument. Their intimacy is fake, their relationship more a mutual silence than anything else; they hide their secret together, but what they are hiding is nothing.
A Girl on the Shore’s pages are full of sighs and skin and oppressive, overwhelming nothing. All the two-page spreads are of beautiful nothing; the nothing of walking to school in the rain, the nothing of staring out at a grey open sea. Sato and Isobe feel nothing and know nothing, not who they are, not who they ought to be. Isobe has a room full of manga, but they’re from his brother, and we learn he stopped collecting them long ago. He starts smoking cigarettes because it’s something to do – “are they good?” “I guess.” Sato laments not committing herself to a sport, and wonders if there’s still time for cram school before entrance exams. The two lie prone in the endless nothing of lazy adolescent days, no longer children but still waiting for their lives to begin. “I wish I could just melt into nothing like this,” says Sato, because she can’t imagine other ways to be. “I’m sick of everyone getting in my way” says Isobe, because surely it can’t be that life is just actually like this.
“Talking about my family is super boring” Isobe says, when Sato asks about his parents. But Isobe’s family is boring in the same way sex with Sato is boring, or their town is boring – it’s boring because he can’t look at it straight on. There is a memory in Isobe, and a violence in that memory. From the beach where he finds broken bottles and SD cards and unhappy girls, he dreams of a face rising from the surf. He sleeps with the lights on, but the memory remains, a boy that was lost, a brother. “I heard your brother was swept out to sea by a huge wave” says Kashima, Sato’s childhood friend. And Isobe replies “all of you killed my brother. But you assholes will never break me.”
Isobe’s anger is vivid, but he takes the punches on himself. Like with Sato, who he lets use him, and pushes away when she starts moving towards the relationship he claims to want. When Kashima accuses him of using Sato, he welcomes the fight; he talks of the hard fake intimacy he shares with Sato, and gets punched in the face. The intimacy of this violence feels more real than any moment with Sato; this blood is a real secret, this bruise does exist. When the two are discovered, Isobe leaps in front of another punch, lying and saying that he fell down in order to protect Kashima’s baseball career. And when Kashima rages at this false charity, the two fall across a banister, Isobe’s eyes wide as the nothing shifts to a bright ugly moment of freedom and motion and consequence and fear. Kashima falls past Isobe and his head hits linoleum. Isobe crouches on the stairs, at empty peace again.
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