Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - est emby Jason Thompson,
Episode CXIII: est em
"This mangaka is obviously obsessed with corridas, flamenco, painters and cats."
—reviewer on Goodreads
Artists and writers are basically collections of fetishes. Creative folks who have no discernible specialty may be skillful at what they do (like most movie directors, and work-for-hire comic artists), but if their personality doesn't come through, if they don't indulge their weird passions, you don't remember who made it after it's done. Manga artists are especially good at living out their passions in their manga (or in their dojinshi, if their passions are too shameful to go in decent, publicly viewable manga magazines). Akira Toriyama? Science fiction, dinosaurs, poop, kiddie humor. Kohta Hirano? Military hardware, Nazis, history, religion. Fumi Yoshinaga? Food, bishonen, history, long interesting conversations. Shinji Saijyo? Enormous breasts. Nozomu Tamaki…I could go on. Of course, what separates them from just being kinky hobbyists is that they have the other characteristics of all successful creative people: (1) they work hard and (2) they're really good.
The same with est em, one of my favorite Boys Love artists, along with Yoshinaga and Hinako Takanaga. est em is younger than the other two. Like Fumi Yoshinaga, it's not surprising that she started her career in yaoi: p*rn is one of the easier ways for newbies to break into the business, and unlike in movies, in manga those aren't your own naked bodyparts forever floating around on the Internet. Also, the bar for entry is low: so much yaoi art is just plain bad. In a genre where you're often grateful just if the characters' eyes aren't both on the same side of their nose, est em's classically-trained artwork is astounding. Realistic, sexy drawings of gracile men with long noses and delicate features. Astounding compositions. Bold inks, with long trailing lines and spot blacks so vivid you'd swear you could run your fingers through the men's hair. Thanks to yaoi I will forever associate these sexy (and in some cases vaguely disturbing) sensations with the smell of cheap 50# graphic novel paper stock.
In a testament to the good taste of American BL readers, est em's work was praised pretty much as soon as it was translated. (Oddly, her Japanese wikipedia page is mostly full of links to reviews on the English interwebs.) Her first collection, Seduce Me After the Show, was published in Japan in 2006, and translated in 2008 by Aurora Publishing/Deux. Reviewers, including me, were blown away by her art. Many people also pointed out how classy it was; as the title indicates, Seduce Me After the Show has a focus on performance and fine arts. The title piece, a romance between an actor and a dancer inspired by the musical Carmen, instantly sets Seduce Me After the Show on a higher level than the typical shojo or shonen manga where the only play the author has heard of is Romeo and Juliet. Exotic European settings and art are nothing new in BL (or shojo/josei manga in general), but est em obviously cares about what she's writing about, and doesn't just put it into the story for set dressing.
There's a dark, melancholy tone in est em's work: not gratuitous rape & trauma like some mangaka, but self-destructive characters and themes of love and death. She doesn't go for explicit sex or violence or bodily fluids (sorry, hardcore BL readers), but her characters' slim, wiry bodies soak up a surprising amount of emotional pain. Red Binds the Foolish, the title story of her second translated collection, is a romance between a graceful Spanish bullfighter and the butcher who disposes of the bulls he kills; the ultimate clash (in bed) of graceful "high art" and the bloody, fleshy reality beneath it all. When the matador starts to fall in love despite himself, he starts to lose his concentration in the bullring, putting himself in serious danger. By choosing love, did he ruin his chance to be a pure artist? By choosing love, did he choose to die? The same dilemma is at the center of An Age Called Blue, a collection (translated on netcomics.com) featuring characters from a short story from Seduce Me After the Show. Here the setting is Britain instead of Spain, and the characters are punk rockers, Billy the hardworking guitarist and his lover, Nick, an alcoholic, promiscuous hot mess. When Nick's irresponsible behavior threatens to destroy the band ("Can you remember the last time he played with a clear head? It's true that Nick's talented, but at this rate, he's gonna drag the band down!"), Billy has to choose between his lover and his music.
She likes to draw middle-aged oyaji guys, silver-fox types. (One blogger compares her to Natsume Ono, another lover of Europe and oyaji, although beneath those surface similarities their stories are very different.) The secondary couple in the background of An Age Called Blue is a pair of middle-aged rockers, Pete and Joe of the Rebels. Billy loves the Rebels' music, especially their song "Too Old to Die" ("To be or not to be, It has a lovely ring…Yet you and I have no choice/But to go on with our shabby little lives…We're just too old to die"). Meanwhile, Joe observes Billy and Nick's budding relationship, and is reminded of his own youth and what could have been. Maybe middle-aged characters are the perfect vehicles for this kind of world-weariness and nostalgia and vulnerability; est em seems to have a good grasp on the middle-aged personality, certainly better than Ristorante Paradiso, where the old guys are sexy and weathered-looking but actually don't act very mature or introspective (for example, why are they still waiters at age 50?). Another possibility is that est em just likes drawing old dudes. Certainly, she can draw hot young guys when she wants to, but she tends towards more craggy, mature character designs rather than the semi-androgynous bishonen that tend to appear in BL. "Baby, Stamp Your Foot," one of the short stories in Red Blinds the Foolish, was published in a bara (gay men's) anthology rather than the usual yaoi mags. It passes the "they look like actual men" test.
I fear I've made est em's work sound all serious and depressing. Far from it. For instance, I forgot to mention that "Baby, Stamp Your Foot", with its thirtysomething guys, is a shoe-fetish manga in which the characters' relationship is reignited by a pair of sexy women's high heels. (Could this be foreshadowing for est em's more recent IPPO, a story about a shoemaker, which now runs in the josei magazine Girls Jump?) I could also point to Apartments of Calle Feliz ("Happy End Apartment,") a La Quinta Camera-esque tale about a Spanish writer who moves into an apartment building inhabited entirely by quirky gay couples: a police officer in love with twins, a guy who hasn't put on clothes or left his apartment in three years, a transvestite whose apartment is home to an adorable circus troupe of illegal immigrants, etc.
Or take Working Kentauros (original title: "Hataraki Kentauros"), one of the new est em manga on jmanga.com. Set in a world where centaurs live alongside humans, it's the tale of Kentaro, an earnest young centaur salaryman trying to make it in Tokyo. Some of it's just silly comedy—there's a centaur lane instead of a bike lane, etc.—but some of it's serious…no. Wait. It's totally silly. It deals with such issues as workplace etiquette ("You have a really fine coat!" "Yes, my colleague sometimes grooms it!"), the difficulty of centaurs fitting into elevators, and the all-important question of, if you ask your coworker to ride you, is it sexual harassment? I wondered if est em's centaur-love was inspired by Donna Barr's Stinz, but in her author's notes, she reveals that it's all about bullfighting, of course. ("What made me want to draw a comic about them was when I watched a toreador in Spain! Nimbly and lightly dodging the bull, it was as if the bottom half of the toreador was a horse.") Perhaps Working Kentauros, which is PG-rated and not really a BL manga at all, was just a warmup for her newer untranslated manga Equus, which features the main thing that Working Kentauros doesn't have: centaur sex. By following her bliss, est em has carved out a niche wherein no mangaka dared go before: she has brought boytaurs to manga. And if you're wondering how a creator with a foot fetish could write a story about hoofed animals, of course, there is a side story about a centaur shoemaker.
One small reason est em is so well-known in the US is that she is a friend of Matt Thorn, the legendary shojo manga expert & translator. Matt met her when she was a student in his college class on comics/manga in Japan. When I asked Matt about her, he said: "She's incredibly hard-working…She loves bullfighting, Spain, soccer, The Clash, ballet and dance, Goonies, Indiana Jones, Chewbacca and Ewoks…oh, and she's got a great singing voice. She does a wicked karaoke of Aqua's "Cartoon Heroes."" Somewhere in his computer files, Matt has an untranslated interview with est em from 2009, and I'd love to see him translate it—although now that est em has grown so much as an artist, it'd probably be worth it to do a new interview. est em has started to branch out of yaoi, moving from one-shots to longer, less yaoi-ish stories, like her new seinen bullfighting manga Golondrina. She's proved that she can draw great stories about two guys in 30 pages and now she's moving on to bigger challenges, longer stories, while still writing about what she loves.
At least…I think she's writing about what she loves. Could she be holding back?! Give us all your weirdness, est em! We can take it! Don't listen if your editor says it's too quirky! But no matter what you draw, I know you'll work hard and I know it'll be good.
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