Pink, By Kyoko Okazaki Translation: Vertical Inc.
By Kyoko Okazaki
Translation: Vertical Inc.

For my generation, the 1980s were a more innocent time. Remembered for the end of the Cold War and the rise of unbridled consumerism, the decade was marked by Japan’s emergence from its postwar funk to become the world’s 2nd greatest economic powerhouse, after the United States. So impressive was Japan’s rapid ascension that there was even talk of a changing of the status quo in the near future. It sounds silly in retrospect, but Japan looked almost unstoppable. Most Western fans will remember Akira, the manga and its anime adaptation, as a creation of this heady period. Its cyberpunk vision of a dystopian future would prove to be very influential to a generation of growing fanboys. But youthful rebellion can take on many forms, and mangaka Kyoko Okazaki portrayed a modern society where women had unprecedented freedom from the constraints of traditional expectations. Initially published in 1989, Pink is not as shocking today. But contemporary readers must have found its female protagonists’ relative economic security and flaunting of sexual mores to be undeniably cool.

And Pink doesn’t need violent bosozoku gangs or freedom fighters taking down the government to make a similarly brash statement. All it takes is one bored office lady (Japan’s favorite dead end job for single women expected by society to get married) moonlighting as a call girl. Twenty something Yumi doesn’t really need the dough to survive. Her apparently wealthy (but unseen) father pays the rent for her apartment. But this hardly meets the lifestyle she’s accustomed to. So she earns considerably more capital by fulfilling the carnal desires of her clientele of mostly older men.

Needless to say, there’s a fair amount of sexual activity illustrated in the manga. It’s all pretty tame given what can be now seen on HBO. There’s abundant and artfully drawn nudity, though male genitalia are only implied. But it’s definitely calculated to tow the fine line between the provocative and pornographic. In fact, Yumi’s escapades often take a more surreal turn. One client robs her blind but leaves her a magical seed. Another verbally abuses her, but succeeds in making her come “for real.” She later catches him being interviewed on a television talk show where he speaks for the humane treatment of wild animals. Yumi then recalls that he carried a “fat wallet made from crocodile leather,” prompting a giggling fit. At least she got paid handsomely to satisfy both their animal cravings. In the manga’s afterward, Okazaki quotes Jean-Luc Godard’s maxim “all work is prostitution” then claims “Love isn’t that tepid and lukewarm thing people like to talk about… It’s a tough, severe, scary, and cruel monster. So is capitalism.”

This impudent and unsentimental attitude towards sex, romance, and life exhibited by Okazaki isn’t exactly the subversive aesthetic of alternative American comics. The pose assumed is mostly one of lighthearted mockery. She’s celebrating the system as much as she’s critiquing it. In Japan, her work was considered an important step away from the conventions of shojo manga, earning the label “Gyaru,” translated into English as “Gal.” Gals were a tougher, more modern breed who weren’t afraid to pursue love and happiness. Suddenly, there was a market for a more grown-up female audience. And Okazaki’s art certainly reflects a more adult sensibility. It lacks the surface polish and cute character designs often found in shonen and shojo manga. But the looseness of line and dearth of obsessive detail reveals a assuredness in her page compositions and expressiveness in her characters. There’s a manic energy in Okazaki’s art that feels both appealing and unsettling.

Yumi’s casually irreverent approach to materialism is contrasted with  the haughty behavior of her stepmother’s, a representative of how women are traditionally supposed to accumulate wealth and social status - using their beauty and erotic charms to marry into it. This golddigger naturally hates Yumi for her modern ways and envies her youth while she tries in vain to preserve her own with visits to the plastic surgeon and carrying on affairs with younger men. If this fails to remind anyone of Snow White, Okazaki pretty much hits the reader over the head repeatedly with this symbolism. Her machinations are what drive the plot forward.

The story’s would-be Prince Charming is college student and aspiring novelist Haru. But he’s actually more a pawn caught between these two formidable women. Haru sleeps around in the hopes of sparking the inspiration to begin his novel. But while Yumi teases Haru for his uncertainty, her even more ferocious kid sister Keiko admonishes him to drop his literary pretentions, get off his ass, and start writing a story that even a kid can understand. Lo and behold, Haru later proves to be just as opportunistic as his female counterparts.

But the most bizarre character in Pink is Yumi’s pet crocodile, whom she’s cared for and miraculously managed to keep alive in her cramped apartment. Obtaining the resources to feed Croc, as Yumi calls him, is her excuse for her call girl career. Despite being drawn as an almost cuddly, impassive, and bespectacled toy, Croc is a clumsy metaphor for the cruel monster of love and capitalism Okazaki subscribes to. But he’s also a sign of the fragile freedom and relative comfort Yumi has obtained on her very own terms. Therein lies the rub. What happens when the monster you worked so hard to satiate turns on you? Or even worse, simply abandons you? That’s a question would become prescient to Okazaki when her career was cut short by an auto accident, and to the Japanese economy within a few years.