Sunday, January 19, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #19: Pink by Kyoko Okazaki

It's important to remember that the story now is not the story that always was. Today, China is the surging Asian country with a swiftly growing economy and opaque government, the one that's going to overtake the US and dominate the world any day now. But, twenty-five years ago, that country was Japan.

Pink is a story of that Japan, from the inside: a manga very unlike most of what we see here in the West. It's a complete story in one volume, like a traditional novel. It's not tightly tied to a specific demographic marketing category. It has an honesty and frankness about sex that's rare in any medium. And, even though most manga are credited to a single individual, this one really is the creation of that one woman, Kyoko Okazaki, not a herd of assistants and dominating editors behind that one figurehead.

Pink centers on two young people: Yumi and Haruo. Yumi is an office lady by day -- one of the herd of similar young women stuck in entry-level jobs in paternalistic Japanese corporations, from which they will never be promoted and where marriage is the expected career path -- and a high-priced call girl by night, to pay for the massive appetite of her unusual pet, Croc. (The subtext comes very close to being text here, particularly since Yumi's father -- never seen in the book -- is paying for her apartment, so it doesn't seem as if one crocodile could eat that much to make prostitution necessary.)

Haruo is a man of about the same age, a wanna-be novelist who's being kept by an older woman. His sugar mommy" -- her name may be Sazae; it's never mentioned in the text but that name is in one chapter title -- is also Yumi's hated stepmother. Inevitably, Yumi and Haruo meet and start their own relationship.

That's most of the main cast: girl and boy and older woman, in their love triangle. There's also Yumi's younger half-sister Keiko -- the bratty daughter of the selfish step-mother -- who spends a lot of time in Yumi's apartment and also loves Croc. And, of course, the succession of Yumi's clients, who tie her up or steal from her or otherwise demand and impose on her; they're also usually rich, powerful, and/or famous, appearing on TV soon after their trysts. Pink probably does not rise to the level of a formal allegory, but the characters are types as well as individuals; they stand for more than themselves and encode what Okazaki saw in Japanese society at the time.

Now, Pink looks like a snapshot of the "Bubble Economy" at its most inflated and wispy: the moment where valuation was untethered from value and image vastly outperformed substance. Yumi and Haruo are trying to make their way through that world, following their own instincts and the herd alternatively. And they succeed hugely, as one does in a bubble, but the end of the bubble looms.

Okazaki tells this story with a lovely, loose line, full of energy and verve. Her characters are similarly open-hearted, even the cool stepmother: their whims and loves and demands and desires drive Pink's plot. This is a book about what it's like to want things in an environment that tells you that you can and should get everything you want; that insists that wanting things enough will make them happen.

When Pink was published in 1989, Okazaki couldn't have known what would happen to Japan a year later -- but she knew the bubble couldn't last. And Pink is the perfect expression of that bubble -- and of all the similar bubbles, that go on every day, all over the world, everywhere young people are told they can do anything and be anyone that they want. If you are one of those young people, you might not heed Pink. But it's still a good thing to read it, to see what a bubble looks like and feel the moment when it pops.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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