FEATURE: Monthly Mangaka Spotlight 6: Ai Yazawa

A look at the works of Japan's master of tragic romance

Hey gang, this is a special edition of my monthly feature since it will be the last of 2015 and will mark six months since I started this feature! It may be a cliché to write this, but I can’t believe it already been half a year. I have read more manga since beginning this feature than I had in several years preceding it and learned a lot about my some of my favorite authors. I really appreciate the support and positive comments I have been getting and I’m really looking forward to some of my future subjects and a few special plans we’ve put together down the line. It’s with great gratitude to my readers that I welcome you to the 6th installment of Monthly Mangaka Spotlight, featuring Ai Yazawa!

Ai Yazawa is the second female to be featured in Spotlight and is also the second recluse, even moreso than Hiromu Arakawa. I’m unaware if this is a popular trend among female authors in Japan, but will definitely be on the lookout for a growing trend.Like ArakawaAi Yazawa is a pen name inspired by the author’s favorite vocalists, Eikichi Yazawa, but unlike Arakawa, her real name has yet to be revealed to the publicVery little is known about Yazawa’s personal life and she has made an extremely limited number of interviews which have remained strictly upon her workWhat little information that has been revealed is that she was born in Osaka on March 7th, 1967 and attended fashion school before debuting her first manga, Ano Natsu, at the age of 19 in 1986. The image of Yazawa used for this article is one of a very small number that have been released to the public. Her beginnings as an author seem to have been rather humble as much of her work was not published in tokubon until after several years when they were serialized in collections. In fact, much of Yazawa's earliest manga are extremely difficult to find.

The lack of personal detail may make Yazawa seem anti-social to the extreme, but she interacts with her audience more than any other mangaka I have seen. Many of her manga include sidebars updating her fans on her current work, her mood, answering questions, and thanking her fans for letters and fanart. The end of each Nana volume includes an entire mini chapter of her characters breaking the fourth wall to address fans directly and showcasing several pieces of fanart Yazawa has received.More than any other source of information, this medium of communicating directly with her fans has revealed information about Yazawa the individual. She discusses her level of motivation, her excitement about other projects, and her feelings about characters and events in her stories. 

Yazawa spent her early career releasing a large number of short stories, most fitting individually or as a collection in a single volume, each published in Ribon, before beginning to develop longer, multi-volume series. Her first published manga is 15th year, a collection of four short stories including her debut work, Ano Natsu, published together in 1986. Love Letter was published the next year, a single story following a girl named Yari’s struggle with a long distance relationship she develops with a manga editor she met during a school trip to Taiwan. Become the Wind was published the subsequent year, telling the story of Yuki, a member of the tennis club who is scouted by a boy in the track and field team after filling in for a friend. Escape, published later the same yearis a more introspective tale of Kaoru, a high school girl struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts as the math teacher she has a crush on becomes engaged and marries another woman. For those who like to follow the development of writers, this was a particularly interesting part of Yazawa’s career, as her very simple early works rapidly develop more intricate characters placed in increasingly complex social dilemmas.

1989 saw the release of Yazawa’s first multi-volume series, Ballad Made Soba ni Ite, two volumes in length and also published in Ribon, following Nomura, a student who discovers her friend Miyamoto is secretly performing as a vocalist in a band by stumbling upon one of his concerts. Inspired by Miyamoto, Nomura decides to also pursue a career in singing. This was Yazawa’s first manga to include music as a pivotal aspect of the story, which becomes a regular theme in her later works. Doubling the length of her last work, Embraced by the Marine Blue Wind is a four volume series published in Ribon between 1990 and 1991 and Yazawa’s first venture into truly complicated love triangles. The series follows Haruka’s struggle in the middle of a rivalry for her affections between her recently returned childhood love Tooru and her cousin, yes cousin, Ippei which they attempt to resolve by competitively surfing to prove their superiority as a mate. Things grow dangerous between the two men as Haruka is unable to choose between them, loving Tooru but unable to express her affection knowing her friend Tomoyo also has feelings for him, kicking off a tradition of self-sabotage among Yazawa’s characters that make so many of her future works possible.

I’m Not an Angel was Yawaza’s next work, an eight volume series published in Ribon between 1992 and 1995. The series follows the student council at Hijiri Academy, specifically it’s vice president Midori, who decides to run for student government upon learning that her crush Akira is also running. Akira becomes the president and the two eventually begin to date. Their rocky relationship becomes the centerpiece of the series while exploring the lives of the other members of student council and members of the faculty. I’m Not an Angel could be said to be a blueprint for Yazawa’s later work Nana, as it establishes a stable ensemble cast who each have their own personal, usually romantic, struggles with a relationship between the primary characters which as as a centerpiece for the plot. Just from the photo you can tell all is not well in student government, Midori is the one innocently smiling and completely ignorant of the blonde pressure cooker of teen angst boiling over directly next to her.

Neighborhood Story is a light-hearted series spanning seven volumes, published in Ribon between 1995 and 1998. The manga follows the hijinks of childhood friends Mikako and Tsutomu. Having known each other for over 10 years, the two have developed strong feelings of love for one another and, in strange irony that perhaps confirms their being meant for one another, both are too stubborn and personally deluded to realize it. As a result, they unintentionally inflict a great deal of suffering on one another by rebelling against their feelings by dating around their social circle and attempting to avoid one another to prove their independence. Mikako is the first appearance of two recurring themes in Yazawa’s subsequent work. First, she is attending fashion school and wears a number increasingly complicated and outlandish outfits, which become an increasingly frequent practice among Yazawa’s future characters. Her doll-like character design also shows up again in Paradise Kiss’ Miwako and Nana’s Misato, the former being Mikako's younger sister in a psuedo-sequel who is attempting to follow in her older sibling's footsteps as a designer.

Last Quarter is a three volume short published in Ribon between 1998 and 1999 which remains Yazawa’s most unique independent work. The manga departs from her usual formula in a number of ways, possessing the only true supernatural occurrences in any of her stories and following a group of students much younger than Yazawa’s typical working age range, with the primary cast being equivalent to elementary schoolers in the US. Mizuki and her friends discover the ghost of a young woman in an abandoned house which only she has the ability to see. Naming the ghost Eve, they discover that she cannot leave the property and desperately wishes to see her lost love Adam. Believing reuniting her with Adam may somehow allow Eve to pass on, the manga follows the children's investigation to find Adam and learn more about Eve’s past. Although possessing much of the usual angst of Yazawa’s stories in Eve’s lost love and a few childhood crushes among the group, Last Quarter really stands out for emphasizing the mystery above the characters mutual affections. In addition to sleuthing, the series also spends some time meditating on the afterlife, with the children in particular wondering what it could mean to be a ghost and if cultural beliefs regarding the phenomena hold any merit. They are pretty advanced for their age.

Yazawa’s first manga published outside of RibonParadise Kiss is a five volume series serialized in Zipper between 2000 and 2004. The series follows a group of designers collectively branding themselves as Paradise Kiss who are senior students attending the prestigious Yazawa School for the Arts. Yukari, a top student at a nearby academy, is discovered by one of the group's members, Arashi, who wants to use her as a model for their senior project. Although initially put off by the groups alternative lifestyles, Yukari, whom they nickname Caroline, eventually agrees after being convinced by the group's manipulative leader, George. The series primarily focuses on the growing romance between Caroline and George and the personal struggles of the Paradise Kiss group as they work toward the completion of their project. Complications obviously arise as remnants of past relationships rear their extremely attractive heads to open old wounds and provide romatic competition.

Nana is Yazawa's most well known and widely adapted work, first published in Cookie in 2000 and running for 21 volumes before being put on hiatus due to personal illness in 2009. Nana is a story about the complex social lives surrounding the two eponymous protagonists, unlikely best friends, and extreme opposites who both happen to be named Nana. One Nana, later nicknamed Hachi, is an innocent, if dysfunctional, girl with a talent for falling in love at first sight. The other Nana is an anti-authoritarian rebel and lead vocalist for the punk band Black Stone. In a rare interview, Yazawa stated that coincidence was a recurring theme she wanted to use in the manga to show how small events could have huge impacts on relationships. In contrast to this micro to macro writing style, Yazawa also took a literary risk by beginning to introduce scenes from the groups future into the manga, revealing the not-quite-idyllic romantic and personal fates of several charactersallowing the readers to decide if the journey is just as important as the destination. The risk paid off, as Nana has been hugely successful, it’s popularity spanning all the way to the West and giving rise to adaptations in anime, live-action drama, and even a videogame for the Playstation 2. A surprisingly large number of studio albums inspired by the series bands Trapnest and Black Stone have also made their way to the public.

Perhaps Yazawa’s most bizarre project is Princess Ai, a three volume manga published between 2004 and 2005 in Wings. Yazawa worked as the illustrator character designer for this collaboration (the actual art was handled by Misaho Kujiradou) which was co-authored by Courtney Love—yes, Kurt Cobain’s widow—and DJ Milky, AKA Stu Levy, the founder and CEO of Tokyopop. The manga follows the eponymous Princess Ai, an alien princess of the world known as Ai Land. The manga begins with Ai awakening in Tokyo with nothing but a torn dress, amnesia, and a heart-shaped locket that kills any human it touches. Finding that she is a naturally talented vocalist, Ai supports herself by singing at the Cupid Club while learning more about her past, eventually discovering her heritage as well are her role in a growing conflict between the humans and her people. The story is supposed to be loosely based upon Courtney Love’s life which, intergalactic warfare and magic pendants aside, seems more than a bit of a stretch since Ai’s love interest, the soft-spoken Kent doesn't seem the type to name his first band Fecal Matter. Yazawa’s work on the manga does speak to notoriety in the music scene and is definitely one of the most unique collaborations a mangaka could hope to add to their resume. The second run of the manga, The Prism of Midnight Dawn, began in 2008 but has since been put on hiatus, likely for the same personal reasons that stalled Nana.

Yazawa’s development as an author is interesting in that her early manga were all short enough to show a very distinct improvement in her writing between each new work laid out in a number of small steps. The progression has a deliberate feeling to it, as if Yazawa intentionally experimented with new themes and built upon her prior experience with each story. Her earliest manga described scenarios in which love was a more idyllic concept and characters pursued it for its own sake. With time her characters began to experience uncertainty about their own feelings, self-sabotage themselves, and actively reflecting upon whether their love life is in line with other personal goals. Yazawa’s work also grew more personalized as she began to work her other passions, primarily fashion and music, into her works to such a degree that she has grown into an influential figure in both of those subjects in Japan.

Primary characters in Yazawa’s manga are easily identified by two common traits. First, if someone has the proportions of a runway model then, chances are, they are important to the story. The same characters will likely also stand out for their wild and diverse fashions, ranging from nouveau glam punk to sweetheart gowns and bolero jackets. Yazawa is famous for her eye for fashion and gives each character their own unique style and an ever-changing wardrobe. Her time in fashion school has had a noticeable effect on her art, giving it an appearance similar to that of the concept sketches drawn by designers. Supporting characters are, appropriately, less conspicuous, possessing much more realistic proportions and attire approaching a more traditional manga style. People are the obvious focus of Yazawa’s art, with her sparse backgrounds and use of modified photography for her more elaborate environmental shots.

Although she employs a number of experimental writing styles, it would be disingenuous to say that Yazawa doesn’t have a number of recurring themes in her work. Each of her manga feature female protagonists, almost exclusively of high school age, whose stories involve navigating a complex social issues usually revolving around romance and its associated angst. Often her heroines are accompanied by an older, taller, dark-haired girl who act as a confidant and emotional mentor. Despite the heavy romanticization of love by the characters within her stories, Yazawa herself seems to have a more conservative take on the phenomena. Her endings result in a loss of love just as often as they do in a happy relationship. Characters rarely get what they want, or at least what they expected to get. Although frequent personal tragedies create a heavy atmosphere in her works, Yazawa has an excellent grasp of comedic timing and often includes a handful of more lighthearted characters to lift the mood through even the worst disasters.

For all her success, even relative to other mangaka featured in spotlight, Yazawa current situation leaves a great deal of uncertainty about the future of her career. Since the reported return to her work in 2010 after a medical hiatus from Nana, Yazawa has yet to release a new chapter. Her natural reclusiveness makes news regarding her personal status all but nonexistent, which leaves one to wonder if she is effectively retired or struggling with some other unreported issues. Although certainly a tragedy for Nana fans, Yazawa has certainly built a respectable legacy to leave behind even were she to stop today. A number of small cameos and small references in her stories have given the impression a larger interconnected world in which all Yazawa’s works take place, providing a sense of continuity to her work. Although herself a recluse, Yazawa's manga alone has left a huge mark of Japanese culture, many of them having been adapted into successful animes and live-action dramas as well as serving inspirations to fashion designers and musicians. With her place in literary history secure, the only question remaining is if Yazawa has anything left to add.

That’s it for the 6th Monthly Mangaka Spotlight! Which Nana is best Nana? What’s your favorite pair that can never be? Is the best band Blast, Trapnest, or maybe Evil Eye? Next month, we’ll be featuring the mangaka who can’t get enough of reforming delinquents, Tooru Fujisawa! Tell us about your favorite mangaka and let us know who else you would like to see featured in the next MONTHLY MANGAKA SPOTLIGHT!

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