I have never really liked the way romance is handled in most mainstream manga. That is to say, I don’t like how over-reliant it is on unnecessary drama or conflict. Fan favorite series as current as Nisekoi and as old as Love Hina make chaos and misunderstanding the crux of their relationships. Evil twins, naked falls, accidental kisses, all are plot devices used to either drive couples apart or sew them together. Maybe this flamboyance is a byproduct of the cartoonish medium, but there is something quite frustrating about how out of touch and hollow these romantic plotlines tend to be. Part of that is admittedly the culture they are based on. Japan’s relationship with love is complicated. But the other part isn’t anything so complex, it is as simple as bad writing. Which is why, in theme with the season, I wanted to try and recommend something different. A story that takes romance and strips it down to the basics. Dear readers, I would like to introduce you all to a little love story called Bonnouji by Aki Eda.
Old Time Love
Bonnouji is a classic love story. And by that I mean classically Japanese. It begins with a 28 year old businesswoman named Ozawa who has just been through a break up and finds herself on the way home from a bar. She is almost there when she has a bathroom emergency and a broken elevator at her apartment complex means that she needs to stop at a neighbor’s for help. This chance occurrence introduces the other main character of the series, Oyamada. The first noticeable thing about Oyamada is that his apartment is a little strange. His brother, who travels the world, routinely sends him boxes of souvenirs and liquor and porn. What results is an eclectic mish-mash of different cultures, all of which are featured in some way via the decoration of his room. Ozawa, after her business is attended to, is immediately curious about the strange and mysterious nature of the room’s trappings. This curiosity fuels a friendship and eventual partnership that will span the length of the series.
Bonnouji is what I like to call a Romance of Romance. It is a romanticizing of the process of falling in love. There is no negative conflict, no fighting, no break ups or down parts; all of the forward momentum in the story is fueled by the feel good warmth of love. Each chapter features a different idea or emotion that is universally identifiable in any relationship or romance. There are chapters that deal with events as large as a first kiss to as small as how to deal with afternoon naps. This style of manga is often referred to as “Slice of Life,” a genre characterized by its ability to pick and choose moments of nostalgic importance. These kinds of manga are known for being warm, light hearted, and most of all, fun. A feeling that is achieved by structuring the story by moments instead of time. In Bonnouji the readers are not given any extended information about the everyday life of the characters. We are given only the cutest, or funniest, or most relevant pieces of their lives. In Bonnouji, every single chapter offers an insight into the evolution of Oyamada and Ozawa’s relationship. Sometimes that is just as important as showing us the first time they confess their feelings for one another. Other times Eda focuses on smaller things like what the couple does when it’s cold outside. Each moment is important in its own right, I mean anyone who has been in a relationship can tell you that handling cold weather as a couple is delicate business. It’s just that instead of utilizing conflict to drive the story Eda uses our preconceived idea about love. She wants us to read because we identify, because her story reminds us of our own romance and comedy. For us to feel as if the ink and images are familiar and comfortable. By staggering the magnitude of these different moments, we as readers can’t help but read on in hope of seeing what happens next. And that is the brilliance of Bonnouji– we know what is going to happen. I mean each and every one of us has either seen or experienced love first hand, and yet we read because we need to see it happen again. We are obsessed with the Romance of Romance.
Art That Speaks
This feeling isn’t only explored in words but also in the way Eda draws the art. Bonnouji is just about the warmest manga I have ever read. The only way I can really describe it is to say that it’s like hanging around with friends and laughing. It has an intangible, almost youthful feel that makes it seem more like a good memory than fiction. If I was forced to put a word to it, I would say simple, a shame given how beautiful it is. As with most things in life, more doesn’t always mean better and I think that holds doubly true for Bonnouji. Eda manages to strike a wonderful balance between giving her art character, and leaving it general enough so that each reader can see themselves inside it. What she creates is a cast of characters and settings that seem like real people and places. Bonnouji is completely devoid of manga’s trademark over-exaggeration. No one has Vegeta haircuts, there are no boobs the size of basketballs, and the size of everyone’s eyes are normal. Yet nothing feels overly mundane or boring. Eda’s artwork shows that it is possible to be interesting without adopting the status quo, and because of that she completely transcends it.
Bonnouji is an oddity. When it comes to story, setting, and art there is almost nothing “Manga” about it, and at the very same time it feels distinctly Japanese. Which is the point I think. Bonnouji is a love story that is set in Japan rather than a Japanese themed love story. A distinction that lends the story’s characters and themes a universality that translates to any culture. Regardless of the different traditions and norms that exist in Japan, Ozawa and Oyamada’s love is a real and palpable thing. It gives off the kind warmth that promises the reader that they are reading something special. A promise Eda take serious as Bonnouji stands tall among some of the greatest romantic manga I have ever read. An impressive accomplishment given my tender heart and voracious appetite for comics. It is a story worth reading even when put against our other Masterwork giants, and it is for that reason I recommend you check it out.