Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
A Girl on the Shore
In a sleepy seaside town like any other, two middle school students are quietly self-destructing. Isobe and Sato are both searching for something, although neither of them know what, and they fall into a sex-based, unhealthy relationship to try to compensate for it. As their third year of middle school goes on, will they come to realize what it is they're looking for and make things work? Or will they be pulled out to sea by the unrelenting tide?
Here's your warning before we discuss the book: this is a very sexually explicit manga, so if that makes you uncomfortable, A Girl on the Shore is not going to be the book for you. Given that Inio Asano's coming-of-age tale was originally published in the anthology Manga Erotics f, this isn't surprising, and Asano's work almost never feels exploitative, barring one chapter involving scatological material. Rather the explicit sex scenes serve to highlight the unhealthy nature of the main characters' relationship and how they're both trying desperately to forge a connection with anyone and somehow fell into each other.
A Girl on the Shore, both original volumes here printed in one omnibus by Vertical, follows two middle school students, Keisuke Isobe and Koume Sato. Isobe is a relatively new transfer to the small seaside town where Sato and most of the other characters have grown up, and the year before the story begins he confessed his feelings for Sato. Sato turned him down, having a crush on the school bad boy, but when that doesn't work out, she asks Isobe to have sex with her. Still harboring romantic feelings for her, Isobe agrees, and the two embark on a relationship that on the surface entirely revolves around sex. It soon becomes clear, however, that there are other factors at play – Isobe repeatedly asks Sato why she's so different around him than at school (where she seems to be much more of the “quiet good girl” type), and Sato comes to realize that Isobe is hiding some deeply hurtful secrets. Isobe feels that he's just being used and Sato doesn't deny it, but there's the sense that she doesn't really see herself as just viewing him as a convenient sex partner, but that she thinks she might be doing something for him as well. The problem lies in the fact that neither of them is able to be open with each other…or themselves. As the story goes on, we do see Isobe coming to understand his own issues more and to make an attempt at dealing with them, but Sato remains stuck on the same self-destructive trajectory, running away from strong emotions and any realization of her own depression.
In many ways, this is a story about two people with different forms of depression, and Asano manages to show that without overstating the matter. Isobe is coping with the aftermath of several traumatic events, one of which has lead him to believe that he won't, and shouldn't, live much longer. His status as a loner at school is solidified by the fact that he and Sato keep their relationship secret, just another one he keeps locked up inside of himself. The event which caused his suicidal thoughts is a believable one, especially given his home situation, which involves largely absent parents. With no one left to talk to or to look up to, Isobe takes what he can get in the moment and assumes that the moment is all he has. His relationship with Sato, which he does recognize as being more convenient than anything romantic, is just his way of grounding himself and proving that he is a person who happens to exist. While the ultimate resolution of his part of the story feels much more rushed and less realistic than Sato's, Asano largely keeps Isobe's battle with depression within the realm of possible and believable, making it the stronger of the two.
Sato appears to suffer from what might once have been termed “general malaise,” or even written off as mere adolescence. We know much less about her – she comes from a family that appears to be functional (although we know of one fight her parents have, that doesn't appear to be a daily factor) and she doesn't stand out at school other than for being pretty. Her crush on the local bad boy/playboy is one we can guess is doomed from the start, but this seems like too small of a factor to be the entire cause of Sato's issues. We do know that she's afraid to commit to an emotional relationship with Isobe, even though the argument could be made that she's already in one – several times she goes over to his house when she is just looking for someone she can be herself with and no intention of having sex. This seems to bother Isobe and doesn't lessen his feeling that he's being used, and maybe it shouldn't: Sato is the one who keeps their relationship in no man's land, unable to admit to herself that Isobe may be someone she cares about.
Over the course of the book, Sato relies more and more on Isobe's support even as he tries to distance himself from her. Their relationship doesn't last, which is a nice change from many manga romances which dictate that your first love(r) is your destined soulmate. Whether or not Sato will remain on her self-destructive path is up in the air – given the context of Isobe's past trauma, her last line could be seen either positively or negatively, and her current relationship doesn't appear to be with someone much better for her. Isobe's ending is a bit more hopeful, and if he hasn't fully moved on, he appears to be headed in the right direction. There's never really a feeling of resolution to their relationship, but that actually works in the book's favor as it stays true to adolescent traumas and that age group's difficulties in general. It's a hard book to really pin down, and while every book gets a different reaction from each individual reader, this one is more likely than most to garner totally disparate interpretations. That, I think is a strength of Inio Asano's work in general – to mean something different to everyone, personalizing the story for each reader.
If you don't mind explicit sex scenes (fully drawn genitals and pubic hair, but none of the copious fluid you'd find in hentai), A Girl on the Shore is a fascinating book. It isn't always easy to read, but it treats its characters with more respect than most would in a similar plotline, and it doesn't shy away from its emotional issues, even if they are never really named or dealt with outside of the two characters' heads. This is perhaps best described as a lingering book – one that stays in your mind after you've finished it, trying to make itself clear. Its characters themselves stand on the shores of the rest of their lives, and it is up to the readers to imagine how they will chart their courses once the book is closed.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A
+ Handles difficult issues with respect, gives a good sense of who Isobe is and why he is struggling. Nicely captures small-town dynamics in a middle schooler's life.
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