The one great terror that any artist lives in the shadow of is the fear that their work will prove worthless, because to prove their work worthless is to prove them worthless — and fewer more devastating ways exist to do that than to prove their work was stolen. Asumiko Nakamura's Utsubora is about a plagiary, but only as one element among many in a plot of such brambled complication that by the time it ended I was in doubt about who was the victim and who was the criminal. I am not sure I was supposed to be that confused.
With any story this dark, perhaps such ambiguity is the idea, but there are times when Utsubora is a little too ambiguous for its own good. Not that I dislike ambiguity; the fact that Utsubora is almost all shades of gray automatically makes it worth the time. There's a point beyond which ambiguity for its own sake just becomes self-indulgent, though and Utsubora spends a little too much time on the far side of that point — but not before making a case for itself as one of the more conceptually audacious manga in recent years.
Stealing in the name of ...
The book opens with a suicide — a girl named Aki has flung herself from the roof of a building, and left a nearly unrecognizable corpse on the pavement below. On her body is a cellphone, and through it the police contact Shun Mizorogi, an author of steamy middlebrow bestsellers (although as of late he hasn't produced much). He knows this girl: she was a fan of his work, and chatted him up at a party. But Shun — fortyish, mustachioed, lean, a good deal more straightlaced then his work would let on — knows more than he's letting on.
How much more, we find, is revealed via another woman who enters Shun's life. She calls herself Sakura, and professes to be Aki's twin sister. Given how much the two resemble each other, it's plausible. Both have the same piercing yet dead-eyed stare; both look rather self-consciously like one of Shun's own characters. But Sakura knows way, way too much about the relationship between Aki and Shun — most notably, the fact that she gave him an unpublished manuscript to read, Utsubora, and the book he's currently serializing in a literary magazine with that exact title is a plagiary of her work.
Sakura hasn't, however, contacted him to rat him out. Rather, she is apparently obsessed with making sure her dead sister's story reaches an audience, even if it's through what amounts to a ghostwriter — one who stole Aki's work out of sheer despondency at being unable to create something new. But is it theft if you're being freely given the work you're supposedly stealing from? What's more, there's the further suggestion that Aki — and maybe Sakura as well — are the original thieves, having molded their own lives in the image of Shun's own work.
If this seems complicated, it's barely the tip of a large and very jagged iceberg. Shun's editor Tsuji — young, willowy, the target of more than one woman's unrequited attention — becomes aware that something's amiss, but is powerless to do anything about it. His own boss is determined to have something put out there with Shun's name on it — and Shun's reworking of Utsubora has resulted in a better, more publishable book than the original manuscript anyway, so what's the big deal? The police come sniffing around, and realize all is not right with the story Sakura has been telling, that she's nobody's sister, and that a great many other things about her are terribly wrong. The same, as it turns out, goes for Aki — assuming, as we find out, there ever was an "Aki" at all.
Darker than black
Reviewing a story like this is nearly impossible without copious spoilers, but for once I am going to attempt to avoid all that and still talk about what works well in Utsubora, as well as talk about what works less well. What I cannot deny is how well the book works, first and foremost, as a generator of brooding atmosphere and ominous tone. Dread and uncertainty suffuse every panel and page, accentuated all the more by the book's languid, black-and-white artwork and minimal use of screen tone. It also strives to be as erotic as Shun's works own are purported to be, but not arbitrarily or gratuitously. Some of its best moments in that regard work because they are as emotionally charged as they are explicit — e.g., a cross-cutting between Tsuji getting lectured about how nobody's going to own up to Utsubora being a plagiary while (later on) venting his frustrations via sex with a (very) willing partner.
What's less effective, though, is the sheer level of complexity in the story — not because it's complex, but because after a certain point the number of twists that have piled up stop adding anything that the story doesn't already have in some form, and become just plain confusing. I'm referring specifically to the big secret involving Aki and Sakura, something spelled out in a series of oblique flashbacks — so oblique, in fact, that they force at least one re-reading of the story in order to set everything straight. And again, that by itself isn't even the problem; it's always enjoyable to have something whose depths survive multiple encounters with the work. It's the way that complexity yields up at least as much frustration of the wrong kind: simple frustrations of comprehension, rather than interpretation. At one point there's an oblique reference to something that we assume is Shun's impotence (and, I guess, how his encounters with Sakura undo it) — something that, again, is I guess supposed to be a metaphor for his own creative impotence as well. But just because I got it doesn't mean other people are likely to — yes, even those likely to be drawn to a work this suffused in foreboding — and so I worried the story had bitten off too much of this kind of ambiguity for it to chew.
Another problem is with the way other plot threads come up, only to pay off in far less satisfying ways than they ought. One such bit of business involves one of the policemen, a normally stolid character who has an abrupt emotional abreaction to one of the circumstances in the case. In theory this is meant to give him depth; in practice, it comes off as forced, and it doesn't really lead anywhere. Another, equally frayed plot thread involves Shun's ward of sorts, his eighteen-year-old niece Koyomi, a wide-eyed and cheery type whom Tsuji has inchoate feelings for, and who stands in stark contrast to the noirish affect of most of the rest of the cast. When Tsuji finds out about the plagiary, he blackmails Shun into letting him have her for one night — but can't bring himself to actually do anything with her once Shun capitulates. It's effective in terms of raising stakes and ratcheting up tension, but it also doesn't seem to go anywhere palpable after that, and one wonders why such a dead end was ever part of the story to begin with.
Inside the Gordian knot
In a strange way, the fact that I'm as frustrated with Utsubora might be the surest sign of its quality; the good things in it are absolutely worth paying full price to experience. It serves as one of the best pieces of evidence to date that some of the most interesting, provocative, and genuinely avant-garde work being done in manga these days is in jōsei manga. I particularly liked the way the story toyed with our expectations regarding who really stole what ideas from whom. Shun is nominally a thief for stealing someone else's story, but Sakura may well have stolen entire lives, both real and imagined. Worse, in both cases, it becomes clear that the full magnitude of their crimes may not be punishable — although that doesn't preclude self-punishment. All this is fascinating stuff, and to see it touched on at all is rewarding.
Still, none of this quite compensated for how the story knots itself up. Let me put it this way: I was less frustrated with how Utsubora went wrong, than with the fact that when it went right, it went so right that it was hard to admit the flaws were as pervasive as they were. Other people may find that the tangled, interleaved telling of the story is a pleasure unto itself, and in fact that was the frame of mind I walked in with. I wanted to savor that part of Utsubora; 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.
Perhaps it is gauche to flatter a piece of work by saying it's reminiscent of the work of another talent, but this time I might be able to get away with it by referencing a name that's not well-known in these circles: Georges Simenon. A Belgian author best known for his Inspector Maigret mysteries, of which there are dozens, he also earned attention for other novels — his romains durs, as they were called, inhabiting some twilight space equidistant between the poles of thriller, noir, mystery, erotica, and tragedy. Utsubora, flawed and problematic as it is, nestles comfortably in that same dark space, where not nearly enough other manga titles can be found.