It’s been a minute since I’ve written much of anything about comics. So I thought I would do this piece on Asano’s A Girl by the Sea that I’ve had batting around in my brain ever since I read it. I think one of the real strengths of the book is the relationship between Koume Sato and Kosuke Isobe. These are the two central teenagers of the book who take up on a relationship of sex without emotional attachment.
What’s interesting is less the way that their sexual relationship complicates things emotionally for both of them, and more the way that a lot of the problems are more caused by how it may be seen from the outside. But what I like about it a great deal is Koume Sato, and the way that she is defining sex for herself outside of the pressures of the community as a whole. She is in complete control of her sexuality to the point that it’s not even an emotional thing that just happens. Often in art, the way women experience sex, particularly the first time, involves this idea that she falls so deeply in love and that sex just sort of happens as an outgrowth of that. This is contrasted against how boys are projected as seeing love as an impediment to be wrangled so that they can get the physical act which is the only important thing for them. The notion that that process could be the same for a young girl is not a story we’ve ever really been comfortable with telling. So the way that Sato chooses to have sex with Isobe simply because of her desire for the physical act is really refreshing.
The result of this though are these masterful scenes from Asano that show us sex at it’s most emotionally disconnected. Sex as purely act. Sex as a sadness. In A Girl By the Sea—the sex between Sato and Isobe represents both of their emotional disconnects to the world around them. And neither is necessarily looking to the other, at least initially, to repair that connection—only to fill the physical need for contact. These are two alone people who also aren’t looking to each other to really cure that loneliness—at least not emotionally. This fractured sadness that underlines their sexual interactions mirrors some of the relationship horrors of Punpun and Maki in Asano’s masterwork Oyasumi Punpun and just shows how brilliant Asano is in showing this damaged hurt way of surviving through life.
I thought I would focus mainly on this three page section because it shows both how Asano is showing the physical passion of sex, while then stripping out the emotional side of it. The two pages just showing Isobe and Sato having sex are notable because they are mostly just a procession of dissociated body parts from two people coming in contact with one another. This isn’t hot sweaty fluids everywhere sex—it is a kind of by the numbers performance of physical duty—and what’s interesting is through the entire thing Asano never once shows us a character’s eyes or face in any kind of way to show us how they are processing these sensations. So even though we are reading sex, we aren’t engaging with the characters emotionally through the sex—in fact, the sex feels distanced, and maybe like reading a textbook.
The third page underscores this distance and gets at what Asano was building to which is this beautiful top panel of Isobe laying on Sato’s hip himself almost expressionless. Sato herself isn’t even looking at Isobe, and is obscuring her face from him nonchalantly with her arms. In actuality both characters are looking at the other’s hands. This underscores that they see each other more in terms of their utility, than as any kind of soulful connection. And the conversation they have afterward is just inane filler. Both just filling the silence with things that neither they nor the person they are talking to particularly care about. The last panel on the page is really beautiful because Sato has right after telling Isobe that he’s just going to become a shut-in nerd, then begins to tell Isobe about her real crush Kashima—and for this both of them have turned further from one another. Sato’s need to humiliate Isobe and his hunger for that humiliation is also an aspect of their relationship. Both characters are talking to one another, but neither is really wanting to hear the other. Or their relationship is predicated on this shared deadness.
I also really love this panel a few pages later where they have fallen asleep together, and Isobe is clutching onto Sato who even in her sleep has no kind of reciprocation. It’s such a beautiful and desperate image. It’s so human.