I’ve never attempted something like this before. I’ve no idea if I’ll be able to stick with it or not. But here goes.
I don’t read much manga. It’s not that I don’t like it. Far from it! It’s just that I’ve grown lazy over the past few years and haven’t taken the time to dive into books for pleasure like I used to. That goes for fiction, nonfiction, comics, pretty much everything. I guess I could take this opportunity to investigate why that is but I think my time would be better spent actually reading. And lo and behold, I just found a manga that, for the first time in a while, I’m feeling very motivated to read and also talk about. If you haven’t figured it out already, that manga is Yowamushi Pedal.
This is one of those stories that, judging from the cover and the opening pages, is quick to give away certain plot details that, ideally, shouldn’t be spoiled for the reader up front. I guess it’s almost unheard of for any kind of story, whether it’s a book or a film or a TV series, to shroud itself in mystery and not foreshadow anything at all about the the turns it might take after the opening chapters. After all, if you want an audience, you have to give them something to look forward to. Lately, though, I’ve wondered how often this ruins the experience of the story. Here’s yet another case in which I’d really like to just “fall in” to a story with no idea where it’s headed. Not necessarily because there’s a big twist on the way (maybe there is, maybe there isn’t), but simply because I’d like to truly share in, and not simply observe, the sense of surprise and discovery that the protagonist is about to experience with no prior expectations on my part. Alas…
Sakamichi Onoda is a new high school student. I guess that makes him 15 years old? Maybe 16? Most summaries of the series describe him as an “otaku,” which is certainly an accurate statement. I’m hesitant to label him as such, given the all the baggage that the term carries. I do appreciate how readers are given a window into his mind concerning the matter, though, giving us a chance to understand how being an otaku has shaped his personality and affected him socially. There’s a sequence very early in this chapter in which he discovers the existence of an anime club at his new school. I don’t want to get in the habit of uploading complete pages from the scanlated manga, but I’ll make an exception for now, since this was what got me hooked on the story and I don’t believe for a second that I could adequately describe what’s going on here in such a way that captures the emotion in each panel.
The revelation of these pages is not the depth of his otaku-dom, which would be easier to convey (and reading slightly ahead, is made obvious on many other occasions), but rather the sense of alienation that he feels because of it. This was hinted at early on, as introductory pages show Onoda riding his bicycle to school, passing by classmates in mid-conversation, making plans for afternoon get-togethers. Unlike Tomoko from Watamote (which I’ve been watching and enjoying immensely, lately), he doesn’t resent their social success or violently brood over his own shortcomings in that department (after all, he has plans of his own for the afternoon). He’s endured loneliness long enough to accept and live with it, but also realizes that he’s now at a critical juncture. Starting at a new school has given him a fresh start and a chance to meet people that share his interests. The moment of excitement that he allows himself to feel after spotting an advertisement for the school anime club shows the depth of his eagerness to find a connection with others. On the other hand, the possibility of such an opportunity not panning out as planned seems to leave him without anything resembling a feasible plan b for finding his place in high school life. It’s very apparent early on that Onoda needs such an outlet for his passions, which are a non-negotiable dealbreaker when it comes to making friends.
This is a common experience that isn’t explored in fiction very often. Often, the niche interests or hobbies of characters are nothing more than character traits used to cast them as eccentric or weird. Sometimes this is done for comedic effect. Other times, it’s a trope used to illustrate how “broken” they are. We don’t often find otaku characters — “otaku” in the sense of being unusually obsessed with any subject whatsoever — cast in such a sympathetic light. So far, we have no reason to believe that Onoda is anything other than the person we’re shown: shy, timid, lonely, but also enthusiastic about the subjects that excite him and truly hopeful that he’s about to find a place in which he can be comfortable in his own skin. These are feelings that I’ve felt very deeply, which is probably why this story is resonating with me in such a poignant way.
I’m trying not to praise this manga simply because it tells a story that I can relate to. Maybe I’m a little too eager to invest myself in it? After all, this is just the first chapter and it would be foolish to assume that we’re getting anything resembling a complete picture of the characters and their motivations. For now, I’d like to use this as practice, for lack of a better term, for observing not just how a story of such length is told, but also what criteria I use to judge it. Am I filling in the blanks so that it better fits my needs? Is that okay? Just a few thoughts to keep in mind as I get ready to blog this story chapter by chapter…