Girl Talk

Manga artists are supposed to have their face buried in a drawing easel, not shining from the cover of pop culture zines. Then again, Okazaki Kyoko isn't the type to live by someone else's rules.

Cover of  Pump : Okazaki Kyoko on left with younger sister Keiko on right. ( Source )

Cover of Pump: Okazaki Kyoko on left with younger sister Keiko on right. (Source)

Born December 13th, 1963 in the bohemian Tokyo suburb of Shimokitazawa, a teenage Okazaki muscled past the mainstream to make room for comics written by and for young women at a time when female artists had lost their voice. Later in her career critics praised her ability to juggle heavy social issues ranging from consumerism to celebrity worship to homosexuality. But the people who knew her best loved her not for what she wrote, but for the way she wrote it.

The other weekend I attended a talk show featuring Okazaki's closest friends, former assistant Anno Moyoko and contemporary Sakurazawa Erica. Okazaki matters to them because she's real. Her dialog sounds the way people actually talk. Her characters deal with problems that polite society could never understand. Most of all, Okazaki is true to herself.

Anno laughed about how Okazaki never fusses over small things, like having food in the studio. The assistants were left to fend for themselves. Sakurazawa joked that Okazaki's lipstick is always a bit smudged. This carefree attitude spread to the page--eraser crumbs stuck to screen tone, loopy lines applied in a flash with the same lack of care as her makeup.

Black specks courtesy of Okazaki Kyoko, not my scanner.

When other artists stressed over deadlines Okazaki partied at the club. You know, for research. London Nite, the legendary new wave event at Shinjuku's Tsubaki House, served as the backdrop for the semi-autobiographical Tokyo Girl's Bravo. Music was a huge part of her life and she wrote what she knew. In Pink, when the boyfriend Haru "writes" a best-selling novel by copy and pasting lines from other books, the inspiration is more hip-hop sampling than the Beat Generation's cut-up method.

Maybe she got away it because she wasn't writing for traditional manga anthologies. She got her start in Pump (see top image), a zine of reader-submitted material that ran her high school doodles and short essays. After graduation she wrote a short one-shot, Girls At Our Best, for subculture magazine Tokyo Otona Club where she caught the eye of two editors, Ogata Katsuhiro and Otsuka Eiji, who brought her on board their magazine, Manga Burikko, in 1982.

Contemporary girl's comics had lost their edge and Okazaki represented something raw. Otsuka describes her in retrospect as the successor to the Year 24 Group, the loosely-knit collective of women writers from the 70s who matured the genre.

Pages from Manga Burikko.

The publication was somewhere between an underground comic and mainstream serial, the stories a hodge-podge of fantasy, sci-fi, surreal comedy and pornography aimed at an audience that self-identified as lolicon--that is, guys in love with demure anime girls. So Okazaki stood out as the real thought pervert. She presented the slice of life that readers wanted to escape from. Otsuka later claimed that he kept her on as a reality check--Okazaki and the other women authors acted as a mirror that shot the male gaze back at the reader.

Regardless of the reasoning, the scheme worked. Manga Burikko developed a strong female fan base that included the original anti-idol, Togawa Jun. (Though why high school girls wanted to read porno manga intended for guys is another matter.)

Sakurazawa sent Okazaki a fan letter that opened the door for their friendship and a chance to join the publication's girl squad alongside Shirakura Yumi, Otsuka's future wife. Anno, the youngest of the three, read the magazine in junior high and later became Okazaki's assistant.

Their output--along with that of those they inspired--gave women's comics, better known as josei manga, a foothold in the market. Ironically this progressive genre exists thanks to lolicon manga that media watchdogs can't wait to stomp out. Trash culture makes the best fertilizer.

Okazaki continued to write in publications normally allergic to manga including baby boomer bible Heibon Punch as well as fashion magazines Moga, Me-Twin and Anan. She leveraged the college girl porn boom to titillate readers with scandalous stories of co-ed life in vending machine skin rags with names like Grand Eros, Love Cream and Collector.

Her mainstream break came in 1989 when street fashion style guide Cutie serialized Rock, a fly-on-the-wall account of hip and promiscuous club kids. Next thing you know she's interviewing techno-pop act Shi-Shonen for TECHII and Pizzicato Five in Takarajima, two magazines on the bleeding edge of cool. When Helter Skelter, her attack on the fashion industry hit in 1995, she was hailed as the voice of her generation--a voice that would soon be silenced.

The following May Okazaki was struck by a drunk driver. Everything after the accident is fuzzy. She suffered severe head injuries and was comatose for several months. She stayed on a breathing machine even after regaining consciousness. Her editors made hospital visits and hinted in their columns at her slow recovery.

In 2012 a wheelchair-bound Okazaki snuck into to a concert by Ozawa Kenji, ex-guitarist for Flipper's Guitar, a frontrunner of the Shibuya-kei movement. Her surprise appearance made Ozawa cry. Knowing that Okazaki will likely never pick up the pen again makes me want to join him.

Ozawa Kenji. (Source)

When Sakurazawa saw Okazaki at the July 2012 premier for the live-action adaptation of Helter Skelter, she wrote in her blog that Okazaki couldn't give her opinion of the film. Is it because she was tired? Or because she never regained her speech after the tracheotomy? When the talk event moderator brought up the accident Sakurazawa fell silent to hold back the tears. We, the readers, will never know the things Okazaki's inner circle knows.

Sakurazawa and Anno spoke of Okazaki in the present tense like she was a part of their lives. But the rest of us can only remember Okazaki for her stories in the past tense. It's the same reason I've put off reading the entire bibliography of Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson or Ray Bradbury. Closing the page of that last book will be like closing the lid of a coffin.

Though she'd probably hate to hear something so morbid. It would be more Okazaki's style to think of her the same way her friends do--as energetic, carefree and smiling. If you ever need a reminder, just go back to that cover of Pump.