The “manga boom” and “bust” that defined American nerd fandoms from the late 90s to the early 00s is a weird phenomenon. US comic sales were dipping, and the big companies alternated between “we have to copy this anime thing as much as we can!” and “this is a stupid fad for little girls who’ll never read REAL comics like ours.” In the end, the bubble did burst, a few publishers went under, and the massive manga sections at every commercial bookstore receeded a bit, but it was never a true “bust” like many western comic people were hoping. If anything, the post-manga bubble market remained more vibrant and sustainable than what Marvel and DC are trying to deal with today. That isn’t to say the manga market isn’t precarious, or that everything is roses for publishers, creators and fans. Debates over scanlations, fan-entitlement and how manga gets selected for release over here could fill up several blogs by people with a LOT more specific knowledge on sales, publisher history and localization policies. All I really know about the subject comes from when I was most into manga, at the height of the boom, and how much I really, REALLY wanted someone to pick up and published Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō in English.
Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō, or “Record of a Yokohama Shopping Trip” (or sometimes just YKK), is a slice-of-life science fiction manga, written and illustrated by Hitoshi Ashinano, that ran on-and-off from 1994 to 2006. Despite winning awards, recieving critical claim from US comic critics and developing a good-sized fanbase overseas, it has never been officially released in English. Its setting can be described simply as “the most relaxed apocalypse of all time.” Alpha, a fully human-like robot, runs a small cafe in post-acpocalyptic Japan. Some untold ecological catastrophe has left most of the world underwater. Yet, life continues. There are only a handful of humans left, but they continue living as best they can. Despite the implied horrors that have come before, the tone of the manga is perpetually upbeat, chill and light. Alpha’s rural commuity is the kind of place where you know all your neighbors, despite the closest one living miles away from you. The early chapters focus on the day-to-day activities of Alpha. One chapter might revolve around her repairing a broken porch, while another focuses on her recieving watermelons from a neighbor. Some chapters cover only a few minutes worth of time. The pace is decidedly slow, despite the fantastic setting. The world has ended, but everyday life goes on.
In between these moments, the reader is able to piece together this new world. Everyone is friendly and the tone is light, yet we see Alpha has a gun with her. Just in case. Money still exists and has value, but we never see any form of government and outside of Yokohama, no one seems to really charge anyone else for anything. People maintain gas stations, mopeds and small trucks in their community, but the roads aren’t maintained and there’s no guarantee of mail delivery. When a storm knocks down her cafe, Alpha scavenges lumber from abandoned houses. Almost everyone outside the city is either elderly or a child. The only non-urban, non-elderly adults are nomadic wanderers, taking odd jobs or living off the land. Street lights serve no purpose anymore, and most are underwater, yet they still turn on every night. Someone or something is generating power for them. Alpha describes paying someone for electricity, but that it is a distant country she doesn’t even know the name of.
Alpha is an amazing technological marvel, yet humanity lives in pretty humble conditions. Scooters and trucks do not have the same self-powering systems Alpha does, and still run on dwindling supplies of gasoline. Robots in the world were built to last and to do so sustainably, taking in energy from food and organic fuel, yet the ecological disaster is clearly based around the man-made disasters going on in our own present day. As we see glimpses into the past, we see that the world was already over and the land was already slipping away into desert and ocean when Alpha and her other siblings were being developed. Sustainable technology insured that something would last after humanity, but it came too late to change things and save the world humanity knew. Yet the world’s ecology is recovering in its own way. New species of insect and fish exist, and new ecosystems have emerged. Some, like the mysterious and immortal Misago, are likely the result of human technology. But even the more “natural” things that emerge take their influence from the long-gone human civilizations. Trees and giant fungi emerge in specific patterns where roads and cities used to be. Mushrooms grow into the shapes of humans, replicating the exact faces of those long gone. Is the world recreating the lost cities? Did humanity leave another devastating imprint onto the world, deeper than they realized? Or is the planet expressing some kind of sorrow at the approaching loss of humanity? Can the planet we see as having been destroyed, or the planet that emerges from that destruction, be something that sees us not as destroyers to be wiped our and scorned but as something to be mourned and remembered? Or are people (and the reader) just seeing what they want to see from a broken world?
Hitoshi Ashinano is very good at capturing the small, subtle changes in nature. He is able to evoke strong feelings of wind, temperature and even moisture from his sparse inks. His simple, but specific, characters stand out strongly against the more detailed backgrounds, but are able to convey subtle shifts in emotion just as well. Like many of its manga contemporaries, YKK’s panel transitions drawn more from Japanese film and theater than Western comic readers are used to, with a focus on naturalistic montage and changes between moments, moods and symbols over changes between actions. The illustration and comic storytelling techniques work together to highlight the naturalistic and environmental themes of the story.
So why bring in robots? Why add such a fantastic element to such a slow-paced, naturalistic story of societal collapse? The manga is not just about the twilight of humanity, but the rebirth. It is the kind of post-post apocalyptic story, where the mystery is in what comes next and not what was lost, that I’ve previously analyzed in Legend of Mana. For that, we need the new generation. That is the robots, the children of humanity. That is also why these robots have no fantastical powers. Their most impressive technology, such as acchieving sustainable energy through food intact and developing emotions and identities through experiences, do nothing more than replicate what humans can do.
There are no shortage of stories about adolescense and puberty in cartoons and comics. Its a well-worn path, and for good reason. Its the transition from child to adult, and while each person’s version is unique, they all follow along related patterns and themes that can make even very specific stories and imagery feel universal. But its not the only moment of transition in our lives, and its not even necessarily the biggest. Alpha never had a “childhood” like her human friends, yet she is still an adult. She has already gone through that first, mysterious transition. We are not reading the story of a child becoming an adult, but rather the story of an adult becoming a different kind of adult. When we begin, Alpha has no thoughts beyond the present. Her owner has left, and given her the freedom to do whatever she’d like. Like many young, largely pampered, adults finding themselves free for the first time, its hard for her to see anything other than a grand, open canvas. Time is sprawled out in front of her, and the world feels like it will always be there. Alpha does not yet have the mature sense of loss and mortality that everyone most learn, and considering she is essentially immortal its not going to come easily. This is why her relalationship with the only children left in the countryside is important. We don’t see any of their adolescent struggles or transitions, we instead see Alpha coming to terms with the fact that the world will move on even if she doesn’t (or can’t).
The pace of each chapter never changes, it is always a very slow, single moment in time. But the space and time between each chapter increases as the series goes on. When in the first volume, the time in between a chapter may be only a few days, by the end its several years. Ironically, as she becomes more aware of her immortality, Alpha becomes more connected to the passage of time. The awarenes that the humans she loves and treats like family will one day die, the awareness that eventually the sea will overtake even her cafe, the awareness that freedom to make choices is not the same as freedom from having to choose, these concepts are all forced upon her by the inevitability of time, even as she wants to do nothing more than enjoy the simple life of her country cafe.
This development is conveyed strongest in the relationship between Alpha and her camera. One of the only other major pieces of advanced technology in the manga, the robot camera has a lens made of the same material as a robot’s eye and allows Alpha to take 3D pictures that she can then view as though it were through her own eyes again. When she first recieves it (a gift from, and the very last contact she will ever have with, her mysterious owner) she is reluctant to take a single photo. The thousands of images the camera can store seem so limited compared to the endless moments she experiences every day. How is it possible to capture a single one? But as time goes on, and more of the world and people around her change, she learns the importance of those pictures and those memories. Her friends will not always be there for her to look at. The countryside will not always be the same. Even herself, the immortal robot, changes. The last chapters of the series show her taking photos every day, capturing the world around her and herself so that she can remember them even after this twilight age has ended.
It is not just her relationship with time that define’s Alpha’s transition from adulthood to adulthood, but the change and development of her feelings and connections to others. Early on, she meets Kokone, another robot who works as a courier. Robots can transmit data through ports in their mouth, which is also how Alpha controls her camera. One thing that society evidently lost during its collapse was the internet and wifi, and so electronic data has to be sent via robot. If you want to send your robot friend an email with a bunch of picture attchments, you hire a courier to make the journey to their place and kiss them. The concept is introduced as a silly, comedic element. This kiss is, for them, nothing more intimate than a usb cord, and yet after their meeting, its all Alpha and Kokone can think of. Kokone is the first to really question how what they experience is at odds with what their unread history and manuals state. They shouldn’t be dreaming, or building crafts, or having moments that touch them emotionally, or falling in love, and yet they are. They are exceeding their original design, creating new feelings and emotional connections from experiences like humans do. Its never stated why robots were made, and why they were made to mimic human appearance and vulnerability so effectively. The robots are treated like any other person, with rights and feelings, and yet Alpha still once had an “owner.”
People go through many followup adult adolecenses and transitions. There is no true endpoint to life, every epiphany and identity merely leads to the next starting point until death finally ends things. The adult adolecenses queer people go often end up feeling a lot more unique and novel than they actually are. They kind of have to end up feeling that way, considering how society tries so hard to keep us from our own history, peers and mentors. We don’t get the luxury of always being able to explore our feelings the way “normal” kids are expected to. We don’t even always get the luxury of having the opportunities! When those opportunities emerge, there is no guarantee they will be at a time or environment where we get to “compare notes” with a larger history and culture. Alpha and Kokone have inherited a largely empty world without a sense shared of history, either with other robots or with other queers. They are forced to build everything, from the definitions of how they feel to how they eventually live, as though it were brand new. When Kokone begins exploring the archives of robot history, all she can find are a few tantalizing clues locked behind academic, bureaucratic and economic gates. Queer relationships are already existing in a post-post apocalyptic world, and Kokone’s search would not be so different if she were a modern day lesbian rather than a future robot.
In the end, the fates of the world, of humanity and of the nigh-immortal lesbians left with the pieces are not revealed. The future of this world is left as mysterious as its past. The only certainty in YKK is found in the moments lived and read, and those moments but not always the same. Comics are not thought of as being an “interactive art” the way games are, but the story of a comic cannot exist, much less progress, without a reader to fill those gaps between panels. The mysteries of this world are not as important as the answers a reader creates. Apocalypse is the end of a point of view as much as it is the end of the world. The classic canard “it is easier to destroy than create” forgets that every act of creation is a destruction, a deliberate choice to make one thing real and all other possibilities not. A slow pace is still a pace. Even in a world of daily moments, where one can get lost in the repeated actions and moods, people change. Even in immortality, we can’t stop choosing to grow.