Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Yuri Detour: Futari Dake

Futari Dake is my favorite type of manga for all that it is not a typical manga, and I’m not even talking about the dark-and-edgy bullshit. For one, Futari Dake is technically a doujinshi; for another, Futari Dake is a thirty-page one-shot. Compact, quiet, dramatic, and intimate, Futari Dake unravels bullying with deep, understated empathy.

Title: Futari Dake
Author & Artist: Mountain Pukuichi

High school girl Saki becomes interested in her classmate, Ogata Ayumi. Saki eventually breaks off from her group of friends—who bully Ogata—to befriend Ogata. The story is very simple, very simply told, and it has been told some hundreds of thousands times before but I have never seen it told quite like this. Ogata is a devastatingly realistic combination of distressed and dealing with it. She is bullied not because she is fat or “plain-looking,” not because a popular boy likes her and that doesn’t jive with the other girls, not because she is special or different or any combination thereof.  Futari Dake directly comments on it: “Because we all kind of had a similar look,” thinks Saki, “I ended up hanging out with these girls right from the start. They’re probably picking on [Ogata] for some equally meaningless reason.”

Saki is no stereotype herself. She is not the kind of loud, aggressive, sociable, best-friend-to-the-heroine character; she’s just really self-assured and really interested in Ogata. (The homoerotic undertone here is barely noticeable, but perhaps it plays a huge part in not allowing Saki and Ogata to slot into stereotypical roles.) Saki doesn’t hotly confront her former friends when they bully Ogata either. The confrontation is in a girls’ bathroom, members only because that’s how we take care of our business, pun intended. Later, the leader of the group finds Saki and warns her of the bullying to come, but the meeting is quiet and perfectly amiable. It’s not personal, you see, it’s just high school politics.

And because Futari Dake deals in real characters with real human depth, it handles the bullying realistically in a way few coming-of-age stories have been able to. Ogata doesn’t stand up to anyone, and the bullies never repent or reap appropriate comeuppance. Ogata just has a friend to weather the bullying with her now and that’s more cathartic and moving than any kind of retribution arc. In the first turning point of Futari Dake, Saki goes up to Ogata and apologizes. Not just says that she’s sorry. Saki apologizes. Even though she’s never directly, physically hurt Ogata or badmouthed her. Saki is not the savior, doesn’t task herself with breaking Ogata out of her shell because Saki is simply here to make amends and to get to know Ogata.
Because Saki doesn’t understand Ogata, instead of alienating her, Saki embarks on a quest to know her.
It’s a story about empathy. That’s not just my favorite kind of manga; that’s my favorite kind of story, period.

It doesn’t hurt that for two subjects I hold very dear to my heart—bullying and female friendship—Futari Dake has portrayed both with stunning nuance. Earlier I mentioned Futari Dake’s homoerotic subtext, which never quite culminates in anything and hell, is less blatant than half of the shows airing on television, but is perhaps the crucial underpinnings of this story. Here, a heterosexual romance does not take precedence over the relationship—by all appearances a friendship—between two women. Another manga (Tomodachi no Hanashi) in this ilk belabors the point—the attractive friend does not desire to date any guy who doesn’t want to spend all of their dates with her best friend too. Yet by simply introducing the possibility of a lesbian relationship, Futari Dake mutes the strange absence of any male presence in the story to something barely noticeable. It lets two people come to each other free of assumptions and merely wanting to understand. This is the subversive power of yuri.