Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
In Clothes Called Fat
Noko Hanazawa has always been overweight, but it only bothered her tangentially. After all, she has a boyfriend, a job, and a decent enough life. Then Mayumi at work begins to harass her, to steal her boyfriend, to blame her for things she didn't do. Noko makes the decision to lose weight to stop the bullying...where will it lead her?
Most of us have had those days – when you get up, look in the mirror, and all you see is fat. Sometimes it's a passing thing, a moment of self-loathing that doesn't last. For others, it's a way of life. In the case of Noko Hanazawa, it is something that comes on gradually. When we meet her at the start of this latest English translation of Moyoco Anno's work, she's a twenty-something office lady who has been chubby all of her life. She knows it isn't a great thing, and time certainly hasn't dulled the pain of being bullied for her build, but she mostly accepts it. Food, she feels, makes her stronger. In some respects, her fat is an armored suit that keeps her safe, and after all, she still has friends and her boyfriend of eight years, Saito, still loves her. If eating makes her feel better, what's the harm?
The harm, as it turns out, is triggered by Mayumi, her co-worker. Mayumi is a toxic person – she's mean because taking other people down makes her feel better, superior. She goes for the easy targets, and so Noko is one of the first in her sights. Mayumi successfully makes Noko feel inferior, but it would be far too easy (and therefore not really in Moyoco Anno's M.O.) to blame her for Noko's subsequent problems. Mayumi starts it, sure, but it is Noko who ultimately takes herself down the path of self-destruction.
In part, that's what makes In Clothes Called Fat a difficult book. Noko's clearly got an eating disorder, so blaming her feels like blaming the victim to a degree. And she really does try to help herself at first, but as she falls farther and farther from happiness, we see her refusing help and seeking a sort of oblivion. She sees “Fat Noko” and “Thin Noko” as two different people, thinking that to be the latter she must destroy the former. In a version of the eating disorder story like Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls, there'd be a realization and someone who really tried to help Noko understand what her issues are. In this story, there's a weight loss counselor who makes a few comments about what Noko's doing being dangerous and that's it. Granted, Noko is a grown woman and most iterations of her story that we see are aimed at a teen audience with adolescent characters, but maybe that's why this version is important. There are no mandated reporters in Noko's life; there are only adults who think it's okay to bully the fat lady.
This is one of Anno's earlier works, originally published in 2002 in the Shukan Josei news magazine, but it isn't significantly less developed in either art or story than her more recent manga. The artwork is a little softer than we see from her today, but it is still cutting in its depictions of the female body and sexual relationships, and it has Anno's trademark stylization. Noko is the most obviously different looking character, but that may be due more to her atypical (for Anno) body type than anything else. The story is a bit less subtle than some of Anno's other works (notably Sakuran) but it still refrains from stating the issues outright, leaving everything up to our own interpretation. Interestingly enough, the largest departure here from what we've seen of Anno's works in print is that Mayumi is the clear villain of the piece when more typically she'd be the character we were following.
Unlike the similarly themed Helter Skelter by Kyoko Okazaki (also published by Vertical), In Clothes Called Fat doesn't put the blame in any one place. There is no “cult of beauty” that we can point to as the larger culprit in Noko's weight trauma; the casual cruelty Noko suffers isn't necessarily because she is overweight. Instead Anno points to a herd mentality of people disliking the one who is different and a “bad guy” who clearly has some emotional issues of her own. Mayumi is a villain because she has no empathy and Noko is an easy target and Noko is a victim because she has her own issues, not because of some nefarious plot against the unattractive. In fact, several people tell Noko that she is attractive (granted, one is her boyfriend, who has other issues); she is the one who can't believe it and would rather hear the bad.
In Clothes Called Fat is, as is usual for Moyoco Anno, a difficult book. No one comes out looking all that good and no one ends up particularly happy. It is a little more disjointed than some of her more recent books with a couple of characters who never really serve the plot, but on the whole it is a grim yet fascinating look into the life of someone suffering from a disorder and never really getting the help she needs. It presents us with a cast of deeply flawed characters without giving us a solution to anything, leaving us to simply read and wonder if the story ever really had a conclusion to be reached at all.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Grimly fascinating with no real bad guys to blame. Interesting look at a variety of characters who are nowhere near perfect and often create their own problems.
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