Story & Art: Natsuko Ishitsuyo
Translation: Jocelyne Allen
Lettering & Design Adaptation: Karis Page
Interview Design: Tyler Crich
Cover and Interior Design: Tezzo Suzuki
Editor: Penny Clark
Publisher: Peter Birkemoe, BDP Press
Manga — especially shonen manga — is rife with sexualized depictions of uniformed schoolgirls, unwittingly flashing their undergarments, suggestively grabbing each other’s breasts, or narrowly escaping sexual assault only to be saved by the story’s good-hearted hero. Women and girls traipse through the newsprint pages of manga magazines as beautiful set pieces more frequently than as fully realized characters, their own desires mysterious to the protagonist and to the series’ readers alike. This phenomenon is not restricted to manga, however; we all live in a world where female sexuality is frequently dismissed, overlooked, and in some cases, violently repressed.
Female sexuality, especially that of the very young or very old, makes many people uncomfortable. Artist Natsuko Ishitsuyo takes her own discomfort with sex and pushes past it to bring readers Magician A, the first localization effort of BDP Press, a publisher launched by Toronto comic shop The Beguiling co-founder Peter Birkemoe. It is a strong start for a new publisher, and sets high expectations and fervent anticipation for the works to follow.
Through depictions of mostly teenage girls’ sexual explorations, Ishitsuyo unapologetically allows eroticism to function as a catalyst to her characters’ growth. In the first story, “Goddess,” protagonist Arisa sees herself as set apart from her peers, the classic “I’m not like other girls” type. She listens to different music, she sets trends, she’s cool. But while perusing her favorite media store, she wanders into the adult section and sees another teenage girl unabashedly reading a copy of Women’s Masturbation Monthly. Impressed by this girl’s tenacity, she introduces herself and is granted a sexual experience that, she feels, sets her on an even higher plane than her classmates.
The theme of a girl who thinks of herself as better — smarter, more interesting, more experienced — than others runs through this whole collection. Ishitsuyo’s sexually uninhibited girls have a kind of enigmatic power, and though they clearly have enough agency to enact trysts on their own terms, they also seem incredibly naive. Erina in “Kebab” is a high schooler working as a call girl on Friday afternoons. Her caustic opinions of a film have caused her peers to ostracize her, but she interprets this as their own failing instead of hers. She confides in her one client, an older (possibly in his late thirties or forties) man with a five o’clock shadow and large glasses, hardly the type of guy that a young girl fantasizes about. And yet Erina becomes attached to him, her juvenile attempts at romance scaring him away.
The few men depicted in this anthology fit a similar mold to Erina’s john, all largely featureless, serving only as a means to an end (or a climax, as it were). The majority of the stories concentrate on sexual relationships between female characters, mixing and matching ages and stages in life in ways that should make the reader question the morality of the entanglements. But beyond the sexual exploits themselves are women and girls brazenly achieving their goals, understanding that they are different because they have the focus and drive to be successful, whatever their personal definition of success.
This is not a collection for the sexually squeamish, but it fills a very important role in the manga landscape. As more and more alternative manga titles become available to Westerners, we see myriad examples of masculine sexuality, portrayed in aggressive fantasies sometimes verging on violence. Magician A is a striking counterpoint where instead of wallowing in self-pity and fantasizing about harming others, Ishitsuyo’s protagonists use their sexual awakenings as personal reflection and a catalyst for empowerment that men, born into power, take for granted.
Translator Jocelyne Allen, whose discovery of this book in Japanese sparked an interest in licensing and translating it, conducts a fascinating interview with Ishitsuyo, included at the end of the book. In the interview, Ishitsuyo discusses her time studying in the Czech Republic, her own feelings about sex (she’s not a lesbian, but thinks that there is an inherent eroticism in seeing two women together), and her interest in mythology and myth-making. Like her characters, Ishitsuyo sees herself as set apart from others, and though it may seem egotistical for her to say so, reading her work proves that she’s right in this case. In the North American manga landscape, the closest analog to Magician A is Kuniko Tsurita’s The Sky is Blue with a Single Cloud, recently released by Drawn & Quarterly. But where Tsurita’s work is far more symbolic in its sexual exploits, and contains far more political push, Ishitsuyo’s sex is front and center, the themes all kept on the level of the personal.
Readers who want something truly unique can find more information about Magician A, currently available in print only, through The Beguiling’s website. BDP’s future offerings remain to be announced, but Magician A is a promising firstborn localization, signalling more quality work to come.