Page 45 Review by Stephen
"I don't actually care if you die."
From Inio Asano, the creator of NIJIGAHARA HOLOGRAPH and SOLANIN, this intensely melancholic work about two lost souls defies the category of romance. You won't find it filled with flowers and sweet nothings. It's more an astute, psychologically complex exploration of isolation even during the intimacy of being curled up on cushions.
Moments after the above is uttered by young girl Koume their fingers will link so tenderly.
Yet Koume and Keisuke only bond physically and sexually. Instead they are forever at odds in what they want - or think they want or say they want - from each other. Their relationship is never equal and its balance of yearning and disinterest will shift throughout. The most tentative and reluctant of communicators, opportunities will be wasted on both sides when the other reaches out and there will be so much remorse and regret.
From Keisuke at least there are lone moments of self-questioning like "What do I even want?" and more than a glimmer of self-knowledge:
"I hate the rain. Especially at night like this.
"It's like I'm drowning. I can't breathe.
"I keep breathing in, but it's never enough. I get all spacy.
"I'm not someone who should be having sex and stuff. Every time we do it, I swear to God it'll never happen again.
"But like, there really is no God, and when I remember that, I end up doing it again. And then I'm thinking "sorry" again in my head.
"It'd be so much easier if I could apologise and be forgiven. I don't know who to apologise to, though, and here I am."
Please don't imagine that he's feckless, however. He isn't. He's been traumatised into reticence and there is a panel so perfectly depicting his detachment from life, weary of it all, hair lank and head lolling to one side, the haze in his eyes as lifeless as a heroin addict's as he cracks one off in front of his computer, head-phones on.
I wouldn't ordinarily use language like that in a review, but you do need to know that this is explicit.
It isn't, however, the sort of explicit that elicits prurience. Quite the reverse, it is almost clinical in places.
It wasn't always like this. As I say, the balance shifts. As the story opens Koume is infatuated by the stud of the school, Misaki. She is doe-eyed in adoration and eager to please but Misaki blows hot and cold and she veers from excited and optimistic to rejected and dejected. She offloads all this onto Keisuke who himself veers from frustration - that his open proposals to Koume are rebuffed - to a resignation that he will happily take whatever he can get like a lap-dog, just to spend time with her:
"I've been thinking about it a ton. And I figure it's totally fine if you don't like me or whatever. I'm happy being a useful tool. And I don't have any friends I could actually tell or anything. If you need to rant about Misaki, I'll listen 'til my ears bleed. I guess it's okay if you just use me, like a toy."
That final sentence should give you some indication that the previous four were economical with the truth.
It's at this point we should break briefly to consider the term "like", used throughout as a sort of halfway point for "love" and "fancy". Maybe "have a pash on..." It's not exactly evasive or euphemistic. It's more like "like" should forever be accompanied by those inverted commas - shorthand for "like me in that way..."
"I know I should just shut up and I'm getting super annoying, so this is the last time I'll ask. You don't feel like you could ever like me?"
And I really do think that's the last time he asks. It's quite early on.
I don't know whether I should tell you about the digital camera which Koume is given and for which Keisuke supplies an SD card he found on the beach. On it they find images of a girl on the shore. You thought that was going to be Koume, right? It provokes a terrible act of caprice, one of those terrible mistakes you can never take back - which you would give anything to reverse, anything - and the fallout is horrifying.
Equally horrifying are the moments before the central break which multiple camera angles extend like a ballet in freefall, and between which Asano presents the reader with a deafeningly silent, double-page landscape. It's an external shot of the city as if from a very high window, having nothing whatsoever to do with what's happening inside. It's like a freeze-frame holding its breath and looking the other way, stretching the moment still further as the rest of the world continues, oblivious and indifferent.
The environment - both landscapes and the weather - play a vital role across this saga, and it is beautiful to behold. A lot of these silent sequences add a naturalistic sense of time and geography to the narrative: journeys back and forth.
If Keisuke hates the rain, well, there will be plenty of it, he will be out in it on a very specific day in the year and you too may start holding your breath. There's also a gale which builds to a climactic moment, thrashing the trees like nobody's business. There are glorious shots of the sea, but Asano relishes detail whether it lies in a grocery-store's shelves, the graphic novels lining Keisuke's bedroom bookcases or the intricate glint in a girl's eye, so he delights equally in depicting the cat's cradle of electric wires which criss-cross the roads. Even his urban sprawl is a joy.
There's one particular shot near Keisuke's house which is used repeatedly, looking down over a pedestrian street broken by a series of steps and way out to sea. Each time there is a lone figure outside seen variously during the day, at night under street light and then in the rain...
There's a much wider cast than I've indicated here, partly to disguise the first central climax, although absence itself does play an active role.
Trust, too, plus presumption and, as I say, communication.
It's a hefty four hundred pages which I read in a single sitting. Who knew that reader frustration could be so very addictive? Only if you've been made to care as deeply as this does.
"I don't actually care if you die."
And I think you lie.