Neighborhood Story Manga Volume 1 Review

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At long, long last, Neighborhood Story is available in English. Why is that such a triumph? Apart from the fact that it’s one of Ai Yazawa‘s best titles, it’s also the story that comes directly before Paradise Kiss, so if you like that one, you need to read this one to get a fuller picture of where those characters come from. But mostly, this is just one of those titles that gets it – what it’s like to be someone who chooses to be deliberately weird to cope with what life throws at you, how scary change can be, and how to come to terms with your own emotions, even when that’s the scariest thing of all.

The story follows Mikako Koda, a first-year high school student who dreams of launching her clothing brand, Happy Berry. To that end, she’s enrolled at Yaza Arts, a specialized high school offering four creative majors, and her best friend Tsutomu has enrolled, too, albeit in a different section. Mikako and Tsutomu have known each other for their entire lives, living next door to each other in the same apartment complex, and as far as Mikako is concerned, nothing will change that. But Tsutomu is starting to wonder if they aren’t doing themselves a disservice by not exploring a wider world, and that’s when things get complicated for both of them.

It’s also where this manga excels. Mikako puts up an excellent front of being completely in charge of her own life and ready to face whatever it throws at her with a can-do attitude and the confidence to be herself, but when she comes home to find Tsutomu chatting in the doorway with the hottest girl in school, Mariko, her confident façade crumbles. We soon learn that Mikako’s brash attitude and in-your-face fashion isn’t so much an expression of her individuality (although it’s that, too); it’s a way for her to put on armor so that the world seems less daunting. Long before her mother’s internal monologue about how Mikako changes her physical appearance whenever something upsetting happens, we can see that her exterior is a projection of who she wants to be. By standing out with her clothing choices, Mikako can control something and, like a poison dart frog, broadcast an image of someone you don’t want to mess with. Standing out was safer in her mind because if you stood out enough, maybe no one would dare to oppose you.

What Mikako doesn’t entirely realize is that Tsutomu, her mother, and her friend Risa have her number, albeit to differing degrees. It also doesn’t fully occur to her that everyone else may be doing a variation of the same thing – Risa’s got a few secrets that her punk exterior masks, and Mariko is struggling to figure out who she is and is using her exterior to work it out. She’s a relatively minor character, but also one of the most interesting, and not just because her pursuit of Tsutomu kickstarts the story. Mariko is known at school as “Nice Body-ko,” which was frankly just as horrifying a nickname in 1994 as it is now. It reduces her to her physical appearance and sexual encounters, something that Mariko doesn’t seem to realize isn’t a great thing. When Tsutomu comes over to her apartment, her shock that he doesn’t want to have sex is telling – Mariko’s value, both in her mind and socially, has been inextricably tied to her sex appeal. She tells Tsutomu that he’s the only boy ever to refuse her offer of sex and eventually confesses that she came to Yaza Arts at least as much to put some distance between her and her childhood crush as to study interior design. As with Mikako’s at times outlandish wardrobe, Mariko uses her body to project an image. Unlike the younger girl, though, Mariko’s is tied to toxic ideas of what makes a woman valuable, as we can see when she changes her style after Tsutomu remarks on her casual at-home wear and in the implication that she doesn’t even enjoy sex that much; it’s just what she thinks she has to do.

Much of this volume is about how Mikako learns to see beyond the surface everyone projects, including herself. Underneath everything, she’s still the little girl who pierced her ears in the third grade because her parents were fighting, the kid who would rather sleep outside on a playground than leave a stray kitten alone. She’s afraid of change but equally afraid of not changing, and right now, the former is what’s driving her actions. That allows Yazawa to do what she does best: capture the edge-of-tears feeling of teen emotions. Last Quarter may be my favorite Yazawa manga and the one that made me cry, but this one comes very, very close. Mikako is the embodiment of the kid who has decided that it’s better to stand out than to fade away, a fully realized character even in the opening pages of her story. The character interactions are wonderful, but it’s Mikako who owns the book.

This omnibus edition contains all of the original volume one and most of volume two. Even though it makes me a little sad that we aren’t getting the original covers, which form a picnic scene when laid out next to each other, this is still a beautiful edition, well-translated and with lovely details like the lacey look of the cover flap in front and plenty of color pages in the back. Now, someone needs to license the anime adaptation, not just because I had the insert song playing in my head the entire time I read this. Even if you didn’t care for Paradise Kiss or NANA, this one is worth your time because not only is it a fun era for Yazawa’s art, but it also is a story that speaks a lot of truth about what it means to grow up.

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