Today, in “Oh shit I don’t understand this at all better talk about how great it is so I seem smart…”
Utsubora is a manga by Asumiko Nakamura, and no one knows what happens in it. I know this because when I got to the end of it, I thought, “What the fuck, that didn’t make any sense,” went hunting for answers, and found that it didn’t make sense to anyone else either. Here’s a selection from the pieces I found, each one from a different reviewer:
- Frequently when I do not understand something in a work I will look on the internet for a synopsis of the plot in order to fill in events that I was unsure of. I would have loved to do that with Utsubora
- The experience of reading Utsubora is a little bit like falling face-first into a pile of philosophical gravel.
- Even after reading it all the way through twice, I still am fuzzy on Sakura Miki’s real identity.
- I also had to re-read the ending to make sure I understood
- I just didn’t like how the story kicked me in the teeth for doing so, and made me feel like the only way I could decide the significance of certain things was to flip a coin.
- I found myself going back to reread scenes days later as I tried to put all the pieces together.
The dedication award, though, goes to this person, who took pages upon pages of notes and crafted an elaborate timeline, and still concluded by saying there were things that they couldn’t figure out.
And, yet, every single review was glowing. Why? When a story fails at the most basic tenet of storytelling — the ability to communicate ideas — how could you possibly justify calling it good?
Part of it is obviously, as I said, “I don’t get it but I’ll pretend I do to seem complex.” But there’s something else going on, too. Not to get too self-congratulatory, but I read at a pretty high level, just because I read so damn much. At this point in my life, if something doesn’t make sense, I tend to blame the work rather than my own abilities, just because Occam’s Razor says that’s probably the issue. But I nonetheless came out of Utsubora feeling like the problem was on my end — I had to be missing something. Maybe I read it too fast? Maybe there were translation opacities? Maybe it really was just that complex?
I think the problem with Utsubora is that it feels like it has the elements of a cohesive story, plus the elements of a daring, challenging story — sexy sex! lies and deceit! rape and coersion! detectives! suicide! betrayal! mistaken identity! It also has really striking (if oddly unappealing) art, though it falls prey to CLAMP syndrome, where all the men have tiny heads and really pointy chins. It manages to make a really compelling case for itself making complete sense even though empirically it just doesn’t, because it has all the elements of stories that do make sense. Our brains like stories, and given the pieces of one we don’t understand, our brains will tell us it makes sense because cohesive stories make it happy.
Insofar as I’m aware, the story of Utsubora is this:
A famous author who has lost his spark and hasn’t written anything good in years plagiarizes the work of a fan that’s so similar to his no one can tell. The real author of the plagiarized work is not one fan but two crazed obsessives who pose as identical twins with the help of plastic surgery and set out to become the kind of femme fatale who would be in one of their hero’s stories. Eventually, one of them commits suicide for some reason. Meanwhile, Famous Author’s editor figures out what’s going on, and the police investigate the suspicious suicide and realize the person who died wasn’t who she seemed. In the end Famous Author kills himself for some reason and the remaining of the crazy fanwomen become a ghostwriter under his name.
The whole thing is a clusterfuck, and made worse by the way it’s told, jumping from narrator to narrator and back and forth in time without any warning. Sometimes speech bubbles would be ridiculously long, trailing across multiple panels, so that often it was hard to tell what was going on in a single page, never mind whole chapters.
Additionally, every character is a terrible person, and there’s tons of rape (although the book doesn’t seem to realize that). One of the obsessive twins rapes Famous Author; the editor is raped by another client; the editor threatens to rape Famous Author’s niece and Famous Author agrees to it (!!!). The only person who wasn’t terrible was the niece, whom everyone treated awfully. I will never understand the inclination of writers to make every single character a chore to be around. I just wanted everyone to die. Or at least tell me wtf was going on.
The book purposefully hides all of its cards until the final pages of the final chapter, and then I suspect the author felt like she was laying everything on the table even though she obviously wasn’t. I think if you asked her she would say it was obvious what had happened after the final pages, and I suspect a lot of the obliqueness was what happens a lot in mysterious stories, where it’s obvious to the person who knows what’s going on and as such they don’t communicate as effectively as they need to.
It actually got me thinking about The Sick Land. I really really enjoyed TSL and would definitely rec it, which is odd because it has some of the same issues. I think the difference for me boils down to TSL feeling like it was missing a chapter, like its ending that tied everything together just wasn’t there, while the rest of it made sense and was coherent. Meanwhile, nothing about Utsubora makes sense. It also helps that TSL was really interesting in premise and Alex was someone I liked, while Utsubora is defined by cliche elements (DID YOU GUYS KNOW SEX IS EDGY also suicide 3deep5me) and I hated all the characters.
Utsubora feels like an failed experiment — what if I told a nonlinear story where no one was who they said they were? I can understand Nakamura’s writing this, and as I said, I suspect the bulk of the opaqueness is of the typical badly-written-mystery, author-knows-but-doesn’t-communicate variety, but what always baffled me about stories like this is how, after tons of people saying the thing is nonsense, no one just admits that maybe it’s not any good.