Okazaki's edgy manga comes of age

The picture for the cover of “Helter Skelter” by Kyoko Okazak.

To be honest, I've always been slightly uncomfortable with manga artist Kyoko Okazaki.

I've read most of her major works, including "Pink," "River's Edge" and, of course, "Helter Skelter." Whenever I read her work, I'm overwhelmed by it, but I can't say I like it from the bottom of my heart. I can honestly say I like Moyoko Anno, who used to be Okazaki's assistant before making her professional debut, or Fumiko Takano, who greatly influenced Okazaki. Although she is the link between these people, I still can't say I like her work. I've been thinking about the reason for my discomfort with her for a long, long time.

I saw the exhibition "Okazaki Kyoko-Ten: Senjo no Garuzu Raifu," which is currently being held at Tokyo's Setagaya Literary Museum. The subtitle of the exhibition means "a girl's life in the battlefield." I want to emphasise: This event is not only the largest-scale exhibition of her original manga manuscripts, but also a must-see for people who are interested in Japanese culture during the 1980s. The exhibition proved to be tremendously inspiring and thought-provoking, and I thought I must fundamentally change my understanding of this artist, who has been undergoing rehabilitation since being involved in a traffic accident in 1996.

Okazaki was born in 1963, so she is roughly in the same generation as myself. We were the first generation of people to grow up with TV and manga around us from birth. After coming of age, we were mockingly labelled shinjinrui (new humans) by older generations. Among us, there were two types of people: neaka (outgoing) and nekura (introverted). The neaka tribe were fashionable and sociable, and formed the core of the culture flourishing during the so-called bubble economy, while the nekura tribe, introverts devoted to their hobbies, later came to be called otaku.

The two groups are almost like oil and water. To me, a member of the nekura tribe, it looked as if Kyoko Okazaki represented the neaka people. The cutting-edge feel of her work, the way she was adored by her fans, her talent in the entertainment world - like an idol star despite being a manga artist - everything about her was too bright for me. In a nutshell, I think my discomfort with Okazaki's work was also a product of my cultural inferiority complex, of the world of difference between her and me although we were in the same generation.

But today, in 2015, I can see that everyone - the neaka, the nekura, gals and otaku - saw the same things and felt the same things back in those days.

In an essay in 1991, Okazaki wrote about the 1980s as follows: "Romantic feelings toward decadence. The comfort of regressing. Wistfulness toward being materialized." But the "good 1980s" that she loved mercilessly altered in the bubble economy years. "As long as you strive to live in this age, you should discard everything that feels like 'bad 1980s' into a trash box," she wrote in the essay carried in "Okazaki Journal," which was published by Heibonsha Ltd.

The fact that Okazaki's work became truly awe-inspiring from the height of the bubble economy years to the years following its collapse is ironic and probably a matter of course. In "Pink" in 1989, she depicted a call girl operating in hotel rooms who spends much of her earnings on a pet crocodile, and in "River's Edge" in 1994, she portrayed a high school boy who feels more attachment to a body left to rot on a river bank than to his living girlfriend. In a world that is already broken, we have to fight through our endless daily lives even though we know we are empty - she exposed this to us cruelly, airily and ruthlessly.

At the end of the exhibition space, there was a message from Okazaki, reportedly written with a computer input device operated with her eyes. The message read, "Arigato, minna" (Thank you, everybody). She has not produced a new work since the accident in 1996. But hasn't our time been frozen still since then? As evidence of that, her works like "River's Edge" and "Helter Skelter" (published in 2003 but created long before the accident) have not become outdated at all. The world is still broken, and our 1980s are still going on.

The exhibition runs until March 31 at Setagaya Literary Museum in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo. The museum is closed on Mondays. Please visit www.setabun.or.jp for more information.

(The next instalment appears on Thursday, April 30.)

Ishida is a senior writer of The Yomiuri Shimbun.