The Spring 2017 Manga Guide After Hours Vol. 1
What's It About?
After Hours is an original yuri manga by Yuhta Nishio. Twenty-four-year-old Emi Asahina heads to a nightclub to meet a friend, only to be jilted because her friend is too busy flirting to pay attention to her. While shirking away from the energetic scene and the drunken playboy hitting on her, wallflower Emi attracts the attention of thirty-year-old Kei, a confident and extroverted woman who turns out to be a DJ. She invites Emi to her place for a drink. After introducing Emi to vinyl records, the two hook up. Emi, bored with her mundane life and in search of something more, is then thrown into Kei's fascinating world of music and entertainment as Kei invites her along to her gigs and even puts her on the spot as her accompanying VJ. Enamored with Kei and the life she leads, Emi is about to learn that the fulfilling existence she's always been looking for begins “After Hours” late at night.
Is It Worth Reading?
The concept of this manga seems intriguing enough—yuri romance, a “dull” woman discovering an exciting new life, and a Nana Osaki-esque no-nonsense romantic interest. Unfortunately, the execution of the concept falls flat. By the volume's end, little is revealed about Kei and even less is revealed about Emi, the supposed protagonist. If the reader is supposed to feel her ennui, we need to see more of it on the page. The audience needs to feel how she felt before she met Kei. Is this her first lesbian experience? Was she really even single when she had it? Is she bisexual? Not all LGBT stories need to revolve around identity issues, but they ought not be so blasé about potentially life-changing moments, either. If Emi hooks up frequently, that'd be one thing, but it seems from her shaky introduction that she's entirely unused to taking risks. There's virtually no emotional connection between the two at all before they sleep together; nor is the scene overly graphic if it's supposed to exist for titillation's sake. Emi does fall for Kei quickly—after the fact—and the rest of the volume plays out more like a typical romance, where the two go on dates and bond. Nonetheless, both characters—Emi in particular—are frustratingly vague on their life stories to the point where the reader has to wonder if Emi has even officially broken up with this boyfriend her friend asks her about, even if Emi claims they have—despite still living together. Or is it the secret Emi's nervous about keeping from Kei the fact that Emi apparently doesn't have a job anymore (as her friend randomly throws out at one point)? It's briefly mentioned that Kei has an office job during the day, but the readers never see her there.
The other focus of the volume—the DJ scene—is only given so much time to shine as well. Nightclub scenes are decidedly brief, and any manga is going to be limited when it comes to conveying an activity that so strongly relies on an audible component. Still, even Emi's turn as a VJ, which involves mixing videos to go along with the music, underwhelms. The visuals in this volume are pleasant enough, although the nightclub scenes don't offer enough oomph. Nishio does attempt to add some shading and effects to make the moments pop more off the page, but it still leaves something to be desired, especially when it comes to a turning point for the protagonist. The character design is attractive, but both main characters appear much younger than they are, which doesn't help to convey Emi's quarter-life crisis, considering the audience is given little to work with emotionally as well. While not an unpleasant read—in fact, it's often sweet—After Hours volume 1 leaves much to be desired. It feels like a watered-down Nana, if the two women were in love and we had almost no time to get to know them as individuals before they were thrown headlong together.
It takes a while to realize what After Hours is up to, because it's only briefly alluded to a few times in the first half of the volume. I was worried for a while that I would have little to say about it, because nothing particularly exciting or dramatic was happening, but it's a slice of life series, so that would be like complaining that smooth jazz isn't exciting. The fact that Emi sleeps with another woman the first night they meet isn't the dramatic focus of the story, nor is the romance that follows after. Instead, Emi's infatuation with Kei leads her to realize how dissatisfied with her life she is, and motivates her to find her own passion. The story is told from Emi's perspective, and because she's fascinated by Kei's life but not her own, much of her background is only vaguely defined and hinted at. There really does seem to be a void of purpose in Emi's life as a result, and her plight feels real.
Interestingly, the lesbian relationship of After Hours is very subdued. The manga would be almost exactly the same if the romance between Emi and Kei were implicit, save one or two scenes of hand-holding and kissing, and of course their first night together. But the most important aspect of their relationship is the help and guidance Kei provides for Emi, rather than the love between them. It's refreshing to see a protagonist supported by their relationship rather than having to agonize over it, which is the likely result had romance been the primary focus.
The setup for Emi's journey of self-discovery is gradual, subtle, and effective, but unfortunately the journey itself hasn't been all that remarkable so far. Her first big breakthrough comes when she provides live visuals for one of Kei's DJ'ing performances, connecting the two in a way that Emi desperately wishes to recreate. It's the most important scene in the entire volume, and yet in the moment it completely fails to visually convey the emotional impact the experience has on Emi, even when that is literally what she is trying to do. Problems like this seem to crop up whenever Emi and Kei bond over music, DJ'ing, and clubbing, which is a big part of the series. The calling that Emi answers doesn't seem genuinely amazing, which lets down the build-up to it.
Altogether, After Hours tells a relatable, but not especially compelling story. It's a bit slow to start, and when it does, it doesn't have any surprising developments. It's a decent series that makes for a relaxing read, and fans of yuri manga will probably enjoy it, but it could be much better if the artwork were flashier when the story demanded it. It just seems to be lacking that one more element that could put it over the top.
Mature yuri isn't something we get a whole lot of in English – mostly we see high school girls in “practice” relationships or very sweet love stories. I'm fine with the latter (not so much the former), but it does make After Hours feel like a breath of fresh air with its adult protagonists and relationship that begins with a one-night stand. It's also more a slice-of-life than anything; while Kei and Emi's relationship forms the centerpiece of the tale, it also serves as something of a catalyst for Emi's everyday life to evolve in a gradual way. Late in the book she tells Kei that her story is just like everyone else's – got of out college, failed at life. Emi's now searching for something that can give her not so much meaning as direction, and Kei shows her how to do that when she introduces her to VJing.
I admit that the whole club scene thing sort of lost me for most of the book. It's not something I care for (not a fan or noise or crowds), so I couldn't quite wrap my head around Emi's burgeoning love for it. But you know what? Neither can Emi. She's just as surprised as anyone that she enjoys working at a club with Kei and her DJ friends, especially since she initially met Kei when a different friend ditched her at a club and she was feeling overwhelmed. Perhaps it's the act of becoming <i>part</i> of the noise and madness of the club that Emi finds so enjoyable – she's no longer on the outside, feeling like she doesn't belong; she's actively creating the atmosphere that she previously found so unwelcoming. Whatever the reason, as the book goes on, she begins to stop worrying so much about why and just learning as much as she can.
That Kei is a large part of the allure is undeniable. Emi, we learn, was previously involved with a man, but she's broken it off with him now that she's with Kei…although Kei has yet to find out about him. It seems to be a marker of Emi's own remaining insecurities that she can't bring herself to admit her previous relationship, and you get the feeling that Emi's actually in awe of the turn her life has taken. It's as if she's simultaneously living and observing her life, which isn't a bad depiction of anxiety, and one that I suspect will continue to inform the series.
Part romance, part anxious slice-of-life, After Hours is definitely one of the most interesting new releases this spring. Emi and Kei are fun to be with and relatable human beings at the same time, and their contrasting attitudes work well together. I'm certainly looking forward to read more about them, and I'm rooting for Emi to find her own path to what makes her feel happy and comfortable.
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