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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Cipher

by Jason Thompson,

Episode CXXXVIII: Cipher

"My lifestyle has gotten very American lately."
—Mikano Narita

It's '80s week at House of 1000 Manga! Actually, it's always sort of '80s week here, but Cipher is very probably The Most '80s Manga Ever. This is a manga with references to Hall & Oates, Culture Club, Billy Joel, Prince, Madonna, Phil Collins and Wham!. The characters own Gremlins dolls, early Mac computers and Michael Jackson figures. They talk about Ronald Reagan and the Space Shuttle. Fashion-wise, there is feathered hair, muscle Ts and pseudo-military fashions they could have worn on the set on Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation video. The only thing that could make it more '80s would be a fight scene involving Cabbage Patch Dolls.

New York, 1985. Anise Murphy is a tomboyish girl with divorced parents; she lives mostly with her bearded, ponytailed dad who cooks Japanese food and talks about Woodstock, while her little brother Martin lives with their mom, a glamorous socialite. Anise attends a Manhattan high school where the most glamorous student is Siva, a beautiful blonde who divides his time between school, acting and modeling. (In her author's notes, Narita explains that his image was based on Limahl and Tom Bailey from the Thompson Twins.) Although he's a teenager, he lives alone in an apartment in Manhattan, in the rough neighborhood of Alphabet City, past Avenue A. His life is a mystery, including his ethnicity, because he wears a bindi on his forehead. ("It's a sacred mark from Hinduism," Siva explains. "My grandmother was Hindu.") Anise, like all the girls, is fascinated with Siva, and one day she asks him if they can be friends. Siva says yes, but he's a little distant about it, like always, and Anise wonders what kind of person he really is deep down.

One day, Anise follows him back to his apartment, and discovers his secret: his twin brother Cipher. It's common knowledge that Siva has a brother, but what no one knows is that they switch places regularly, playing whichever role is convenient for them that day. Anise is confused and a little angry. ("How can you do this? You've been lying to all your friends!") The twins make a bet with her: if she can tell them apart after two weeks, they will tell her the reason why they share one life. If she can't, she has to promise never to tell anyone their secret. Anise asks for one extra condition: she needs to spend more time with them first. "Even if I come back with you after school, I still only get to see you three hours a day, tops! I'm gonna move in here for two weeks!"

The boys are doubtful about having a girl in their apartment ("We're not gay, you know"), but agree to let her live with them for two weeks. Anise moves in and begins to peek inside the lives of the twins and learn to tell them apart. Cipher (real name Roy) acts like the younger of the two: he's sensitive, wears glasses more often, and cries like a baby sometimes. Siva (real name Jake) is the "big brother", who handles the finances of the household, does most of the cooking, and tucks Cipher into bed when he's sad. Oh, and they're so close they kiss each other goodnight on the lips. Gradually Anise learns the twins' secrets, the wounds on their hearts—and bodies.

Sandwiched between sexy twins with half-open shirts, it sounds like a pretty delicious situation for our heroine. Indeed, Minako Narita has a following in Japan for her hot-boy art, and Alexandrite, the untranslated sequel to Cipher, goes a little farther into bishonen romance fare. But deep down, Narita (and Anise) is more pure-hearted than that. Despite the hints of twincest, Cipher is thoroughly PG-rated.It's a subtle, slow-moving—sometimes too slow-moving—story of friendship and family and troubled pasts.

Although most Americans in 2013 will immediately think that Cipher is obsessed with the '80s, the truth is, Cipher is obsessed with America. No Japan-loving weeaboo has ever geeked out about Japanese culture more than Minako Narita geeks out about America in Cipher. The series ran in LaLa magazine from 1985 to 1990, so all the music and fashion she writes about is simply current pop culture for the time. And although it's glowingly idealized, Narita's depiction of America is surprisingly realistic for a manga; her "research trips" obviously paid off. I can almost imagine Narita writing Cipher, in her room surrounded by Western toys and music, looking at her photos of New York, eating an American-style breakfast of eggs and toast and orange juice (seriously! She says so in her author's notes!), thinking "What would an American do here? What would an American think? What would be in a typical American street/restaurant/apartment/high school? I HAVE TO KNOW!!!" A large percentage of Cipher is simply about creating the perfect vicarious "American teenager" experience, something which apparently clicked with shojo readers from 1985 to 1990; the series was adapted into an anime, and an 'image album' with, fittingly, Western pop music.

As an American, reading Cipher is alternately fascinating in a narcissistic way, and simply boring. Firstly, although the Americana is mostly accurate, there's perhaps too many scenes of the characters just doing ordinary 'American' daily stuff. Much of the series consists of the characters sightseeing, going to the park, going to the beach, etc.; perhaps a way for Narita to show off her the extraordinarily detailed backgrounds, with page after page of the New York skyline, busy streets drawn from all angles, rooms and buildings drawn in painstaking detail. Secondly, Narita's pacing is slow; extremely slow. The mere fact that Narita was allowed to pace a story this slowly speaks volumes about how different (less cutthroat? longer readers' attention span?) the manga market was 20+ years ago. There are many long, subdued scenes of character interaction, scenes like the one when Cipher teaches Anise to floss her teeth, whole scenes revolving around characters working up the courage to say "I don't mean to be a pest, but…when you were mad earlier, was it really not my fault?" On the other hand, there are almost no dead ends or red herrings in the story; it doesn't ramble around, it's just slow. Beneath the set-dressing, the leisurely daily life, I waited and waited for the characters and story to come out.

The truth is, Anise is a fairly strong character, but she's mostly a reader stand-in; Cipher is the story of the two brothers. (In the later volumes, Anise is offscreen for chapters at a time.) The manga opens with a Bible quote about Cain and Abel, a reference that Narita seems to have gotten from John Steinbeck's East of Eden (specifically the 1981 American TV mini-series), another story about brothers. As Anise gradually discovers, Cipher (Roy) and Siva (Jake) had their lives shattered by an event in their past, which ended with their father dead, their mother gone, and Siva as Cipher's unofficial caretaker, his brother's keeper. It seems like Siva is the one who keeps Cipher from falling apart…but is Siva just as dependent as Cipher as Cipher is on him? When one of the brothers falls in love with Anise, their suffocatingly close relationship begins to collapse. "Maybe it all started to fall apart from the time Anise appeared…we can't keep doing everything together." Eventually, the brothers split up. They move to different parts of the country, get new roommates (involving much homosocial bonding), and start to develop new lives. Usually, twin/twincest scenarios don't leave any room for character development; make the twins different from one another, after all, and you break the fantasy. But here it happens; the two identical characters, who we once couldn't tell apart, turn into separate people. Meanwhile, Anise, too, grows up and becomes an adult. She doesn't talk about it directly (that would be too indelicate for Narita), but we see the tampon pail she brings with her on her trip to the twins' apartment, and then there's the subplot about the first time she gets a bra.

A sidelong glance at a tampon pail may not seem like a major piece of story information, but one of the interesting things about Cipher is how understated it all is. Scenes that other artists would expand into melodramatic moments, Narita leaves offscreen. She avoids overexplaining the characters' feelings with lengthy internal monologues. Shouting matches, fights and passionate makeouts are rare. This is part subtlety on Narita's part, but it may also be part of the series' general family-friendly attitude, its positive depiction of a gentle America where characters may talk ominously about "bad neighborhoods" or drug use, but in which you hardly ever see violence, and where even drug dealers, when told that their client is quitting, kindly say "Ah…glad to hear it. It's still not too late for you!" When Anise goes to summer camp, the other girls talk about boys and spy on the boys skinny-dipping, but it's all good clean fun, without sexually-harassing creeps or teen pregnancy or bullying goons. And did I mention the main characters are all churchgoers? Of course, almost all manga ultimately come to a happy place in the end, but Cipher's uniqueness is that it avoids jerking around the reader with melodramatic twists and turns just for the sake of shock value. (Except for one out-of-the-blue twist in volume 6.) It's one thing to say about a story, "There was no bad guy," but it rings hollow in some other shojo manga I could mention, storieswhere characters do horrible things like rape each other and pluck one another's eyes out and then a few volumes later they're all buddy-buddy again and everyone's happy and you're supposed to love them. In Cipher, on the other hand, Narita paints with a subtler palette, resulting in more believable, likable characters, and an emotional ending which feels right.

In the end, Cipher is a very slow, very character-driven manga, a simple story dressed up by a lavish recreation of 1980s New York and L.A. Presumably its pleasant characters, and not its obsessive 80s-ishness, was why CMX picked it as one of the launch titles of their now-dead manga line; maybe they planned to translate Alexandrite if it did well. (It didn't. Is there a market for an aggressively retro-'80s manga line? -_- ) Another one of the best points of the manga is its great art, and the way Narita uses the backgrounds to express what's going on in the story: the Twin Towers that symbolize Jake and Roy, and the Statue of Liberty, which is shrouded in scaffolding (for its 1986 reconstruction) just at the point when the story is at its darkest. As a story, Cipher is interesting but imperfect. As a work of worldbuilding, OTOH, it's an amazing, albeit slavish reconstruction of a time and place. It's too bad it wasn't actually translated in the '80s. What the heck would Americans have thought of it? Oh well, hindsight is 20/20.

Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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