Genius emerges

NAGAYOSHI Takeru's 『スミレ♡17歳!!』 (Sumire ♡ juunanasai!!, or "Sumire, age 17!") is one of the best comic books I have read in years. YEARS. YOU BUY IT. YOU BUY IT.

The premise: Sumire is a ventriloquist's mannequin who, along with her mysterious black-clad puppeteer, attends high school. A lesser artist might stop at this idea, add "but nobody notices", and crank out some absurdist sight gags. But the stroke of genius in Sumire is that they all do notice. The only ones unaware of Sumire's dollhood are her teachers (more on this later) and Sumire herself.

So although the doll-in-gym-class physical humor is included -- and executed very well -- the majority of the humor comes from the weird triangular interactions between Sumire, her classmates, and the Puppeteer. We, the readers, are placed in the same situation as the classmates: we have no idea what is going on, and the Puppeteer is never anything other than a gloriously complete cypher. He never, ever breaks character. If someone speaks to him, he responds as Sumire (with something like "What do you mean, 'you creepy old man'? I'm a girl!") If someone punches him, he responds as Sumire...

... and taunts them for missing, because they did, after all, miss Sumire. From her point of view, which does not include the Puppeteer, they punched empty space.

Meanwhile, blood is gushing from the Puppeteer's nose. Maybe this is one those things you either find humorous or you don't, but I am definitely in the former camp.

A lesser artist might stop at this idea, and drop a few broad hints that the guy is basically just a pervert who has hit upon the perfect way to get close to high school students. But Nagayoshi is better than that. He leaves it brilliantly, almost disturbingly, ambiguous as to what exactly the Puppeteer believes, or even knows, about his situation. Given a panel like this one...

... in which Sumire urges her female classmates to hurry up and get changed (Japanese students change for gym in their home room, first the girls and then the boys -- don't ask me why), can we be confident that his doki doki-ing heart is excited at the prospect of seeing his classmates in their underwear?

Or is he just shy?

About the teachers: they can't tell that Sumire isn't a real person, and this is done with magical hand-waving. Whenever they see her, their eyes glaze over and they act as though she were real. Something like this was obviously necessary to make the story work at all (otherwise, the guy would never have gotten himself enrolled in high school), and I can't think of many other options... although giving no visible outward sign of the teachers' situation, and leaving it ambiguous as to whether they were being fooled or whether they were just lying to their students about what they saw for reasons known only to them, might have been a good one.

Maybe that would have been more disturbing, or maybe Nagayoshi has something definite in mind for the magical aspect of his set-up. (I kind of hope not -- it would really bring this story down to include any pseudo-realistic explanations along the lines of "the Puppeteer has a mind control ray that only works on educators".)

Anyway, this means that the students are totally alone. Their authority figures are useless, and they are left to deal with someone completely bizarre and possibly dangerous. Buffy fans should recognize the uses to which an extended metaphor like this can be put, although interestingly, Sumire herself shows no malice and most of the students eventually get used to her and talk to her as if she were real -- it's the ones who insist on continuing to challenge the Puppeteer who play antagonist roles, and their redemption always involves accepting Sumire as a "person".

But what is a "person"? Can a doll be a person if others confer personhood on her? Can a person transfer their personhood to a doll if others acknowledge the act? What if the doll were not a real doll but an allegory for the self we carefully construct and project to the world? What if Sumire is, qualitatively, no more bizarre a story than the ones we all try to tell the people around us every day? Sumire pushes these ideas to the edge, without directly mentioning them at all.

Take a scene like this one, in which it seems that Sumire is apologizing for being a doll.

Does she know, really? But wait -- who is "she"? She's a puppet, and of course the Puppeteer knows... or does he? Does he know in a cynical, top-of-the-consciousness way, or is he unable to admit it to himself, and this is a one-time thing caused by the unusual stress of almost drowning and being saved by a boy who loves her? (And who are we to mock him? Would it be better if he loved a real girl? Here in our world, she'd still be a comic book character...)

And don't forget to notice the Puppeteer at the bottom. It's a hilarious visual, but touching too -- is he crying? Or is he just still wet from the river...?

Sumire is also thought-provoking in the best kind of non-preordained way in the context of Japan's pop culture, where mysterious, silent men in dark suits dress girls up, write songs for them, and push them out on-stage to perform -- although Sumire is a defanged analogy in that presumably Sumire herself, being a mannequin, had no identity of her own over which these male-gaze-friendly ideas are being written.

Of course, the only reason Sumire works as a comic book is because all of these ideas are simmering unexpressed below the surface of a laugh-out-loud funny pastiche of high school life + ventriloquist's doll. Nagayoshi's lines are clean and fun, and his faces are really expressive. And yes, that does include Sumire's: its very inexpressiveness, backed by the Puppeteer's rubber-faced refusal to acknowledge his physical limitations (he is not a young man), gives it a kind of inverse life.

You will see Sumire as a character in her own right. Then you will realize that this is silly. Then you will realize that it's not any sillier than seeing any other drawing on paper as a character. Then you will run to the Saussure-signal for the only man who can help you now. But he died almost a century ago. Where does that leave you?

Strongly recommended.

Popularity factor: 7




It seems to me a perfect interpretation of the whole thing is puppeteer-as-manga artist. Or is that manga artist-as-puppeteer. Anyway. The character takes on a life of its own, as the best manga characters do. Food for thought...


Scott, you're so right. That's so obvous I didn't even see it. Duh!


Ah, that looks wonderfully strange and twisted. I wonder what the chances of an English translation ever coming out are.

Actually, given that Midori's Days made it over, maybe it has a shot.


The Saussure-signal, I guess, projects an arbitrary sign onto the sky?


Dorian: And the great thing is that the actual language is really pretty standard comic-book teenager talk. It would be pretty hard to mess up, unlike some other books where the language is vitally important (coughspecificexampledeletedcough).

Tim: Right. Unfortunately, though, once the signal is perceived and linked to its signified problem, the actual crime-fighting isn't done until fifty years later, by Italian academics.


I picked it up. It is brilliant. Thanks for the rec.

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