Page 45 Review by Stephen
"She was kind to me. But I couldn't open my heart. I let her feelings spill on the ground, unable to take them in."
Please do not judge this comic by its cover, its title or that eloquent opening quotation without context.
This is without doubt an exceptionally well articulated graphic novel delving in considerable depth into this young individual's social anxieties, her developmental dependence upon parental approval - which, in its culpable absence, created the most enormously destabilising and prohibitive hindrance towards autonomy, personal growth and even self-love - as well as the most crippling aversion to any form of physical friendship.
To be emotionally and reactively incapable of giving or receiving a mere hug!
I type "mere" but a hug is ever so important, whether it be between friends or lovers. It bonds and it connects us. We should probably all do more ape- or monkey-like grooming.
No, what Kabi is describing above is not her reaction to a spurned lover (because that is way out of her range right now) but the best she can do when she finally plucks up enough courage to book a date with a professional agency, meet one of their exceedingly kind, considerate and consistently thoughtful companions, and then is left to lead the pair of them (rather than being instructed to do so) to a Japanese love-hotel and choose for them both a room.
She has never kissed, never touched, never loved but - overwhelmed by the crippling occasion and all its new opportunities so sadly denied and thwarted by her ingrained, overriding self-consciousness - Nagata Kabi's immediate and instinctive reaction is not to feel sorry for herself but consider the feelings of her chosen consort instead, throughout the entire experience.
The very opposite of self-involved, this book may on the surface and in its beginnings test your potential for basic human empathy by seeming overwhelmingly ego-centric. Nagata Kabi was a self-confessed mess. But she didn't get that way through self-absorbed self-indulgence. I call on Mother Nurture.
It's autobiography, by the way, and into Page 45's Mental Health Section it so justifiably goes, not because it has anything inherently to do with sexuality, but because of the monumental strife which Kabi has encountered to get anywhere close to where she is today, which is a phenomenally accomplished creator of manga.
I thought this was so deftly done!
So we come to my opening caveats:
Although touching upon her sexuality as a gay woman - and certainly exploring her relationship with her mother in that specific context in an eye-opening way which I've not encountered before but have, strangely, since - Kabi's wider battle is far more universal and so, I would have thought, of interest to all.
Have you never been in a perpetual state not of flux but of flustered?
I mean that boiling, sweaty, off-kilter wrong-sidedness that can easily up-end any of us? I used to blush terribly in my late teens and wouldn't recover for hours. If sitting in a pub it would make me excruciatingly self-conscious and render me silent. Kabi evokes that to perfection. But her own discomfort came with physical pain, debilitation, a vulnerability to temperature and to two diametrically opposed eating disorders including a compulsion to eat while on shift at a supermarket. This is horrific:
"Sometimes there was only instant ramen... And I didn't have the time to add hot water and wait three minutes (I was already in the middle of a shift)... I'd just bite into them.
"The non-fried noodles are particularly hard, so they'd be speckled with my blood... and if I sprinkled the soup powder on them, it just fell through the cracks and didn't stick at all."
She's open and honest about her naivety.
"I started causing problems for everyone, coming in late, leaving early, calling in sick...
"At that part-time job I was looking for a place that would accept me unconditionally. But, of course, a part-time job isn't the place for that. It's a place for receiving wages in compensation for labour. There's no room for someone who can't work their wages worth.
"I would have to look elsewhere for unconditional acceptance."
Unfortunately Nagata looked to her parents, and especially her Mum.
You'd think that would be a pretty safe bet under normal circumstances.
I'm afraid not.
Her mother bares a single mocking mouth line in every panel as, at every turn, Nagata's incremental achievements are dismissed by the holy trinity of her mother, father and grandmother who throw in her face the sacred mantra of "salaried employee", undermining her self-confidence still further, which makes her all the more determined to please them.
"Recently, I've realised that the times when I'm uncomfortable are related to when I'm trying to make myself look good due to an inferiority complex, or when I don't understand how I actually feel."
It is, quite frankly, a minor miracle that Kabi ever clawed her way out of this mental quicksand, but there is the one invaluable helping hand held out to her from a most unexpected source.
A substantial portion of the graphic novel is given over to her encounter in the love hotel, her professional date who is, as I've said, kind, considerate and courteous right from the start, but far more than that: confident, unflappable and empowering, leaving Nagata to choose their room from the various screens. Here there are no wrong answers. Instead she is complimented:
"That's so brave."
The very opposite of life at home.
But, without wishing to spoil anything, the experience is not quite as transformative as you might hope.
It's all so respectfully drawn: genuinely sensual but in no way titillating. Remember: any form of touch is a big thing for Nagata.
The choice of pink is perfect. It's both the colour of the flesh and the colour of the flush - of embarrassment, shame, awkwardness, humiliation. It's also a healing colour.
Communication is vital for any sort of healing and part of Kabi's problem was a complete absence of that. Understanding this, she has communicated her experience here with a commendable candour and so small degree of hindsight. And, I'm delighted to say, success, both in its accomplishment and reception.