Well, let's kick off this month with a surprisingly sweet story from an equally surprising source - Digital Manga Press. Most people know them either as a yaoi publisher or the folks who do all those Tezuka Kickstarters, but in recent years they've started building up a quiet little stash of heartwarming titles, ones deserving of more attention.
KINOKOINU - MUSHROOM PUP (Kinoko inu), by Kimama Aoboshi. First published in 2010, and first published in North America in 2014.
Hotaru Yuyami is a broken man. He's a popular storybook illustrator, but he's all but retreated from the world since the death of his beloved family dog Hanako. He can't focus on his work, he doesn't want to talk to other people, and he can barely be bothered to sleep or eat on a regular basis. His mourning is interrupted when a strange pink mushroom in the yard transforms into an equally strange pink dog that Hotaru dubs Mushroom Pup. Together with Mushroom Pup, Hotaru's editor, and a mohawked mushroom enthusiast, Hotaru begins to emerge from his depression and move on with his life.
If the description above didn't make it clear, this is kind of a strange story. That being said, it's also a very simple and touching story, one not all that far removed from the storybooks that Hotaru creates.
While it's clearly riffing on the 'boy and his dog' sort of stories, Kinokoinu is really more about coping with the death of a loved one. At first, Hotaru's reaction seems bizarre. While I wager that many of the people reading this know the pain of losing a well-loved pet, few of us would mourn them for months as they sunk into a deep depression. Over time, though, we learn Hanako was all but family to him. She's the last living connection he has to his parents and she was the only thing that could cheer him up after their deaths. With her death, Hotaru is now truly alone in the world, and suddenly his sadness and disconnect from the world start to make more sense to the reader.
It's not all touchy-feely, though. Clearly Mushroom Pup gives not the slightest of fucks as she employs some extreme methods for snapping Hotaru out of his funk. She burns Hanako's things, she scribbles over Hotaru's manuscripts to force him to make a real effort, and even kicks him when he starts to lose himself in his memories. Still, you can't argue with the results. Bit by bit, Hotaru is forced to deal with the here and now and to reengage with the world. Mushroom Pup might be destructive at times, but she ultimately does these things out of genuine love and concern for Hotaru.
At times it feels like Mushroom Pup got more development than the rest of the supporting cast, despite the fact that she never speaks a word. We do get to know Hotaru's editor and Yara the mushroom expert a little and we also see them loosen up and bond with Hotaru under the influence of Mushroom Pup, but they don't really serve much purpose to the story beyond a bit of exposition and to serve as gentle cheerleaders for Hotaru. Still, it all adds up to a story that's at once bittersweet yet wistful. I wouldn't have expected such a moral from something that seemed so simple and cutesy, but this story is in its own way like a mushroom. Under its strange exterior are some surprisingly deep and far-reaching roots.
Aoboshi's art is much like the title character itself, being both cute yet odd. The character designs are flat and simple - once again, a style not all that dissimilar from Hotaru's own. Still, there's a lot of charm in Hotaru's sleepy-eyed gaze or Yana's bottle-brush hair. The human characters tend to be rather understated in their expressions and movements, but Mushroom Pup manages to get across a lot of her moods and meanings just through her body language or a well-timed close-up (despite the fact that Mushroom Pup's face rarely shifts expression). The backgrounds are also quite plain, even a little claustrophobic since so much time is spent inside Hotaru's house. Still, it does make for a good contrast for the few times he does go outside, and these moments usually coincide with major emotional moments in the story as well. While I tend to prefer elaborate artwork in manga, it's stories like this that remind me that sometimes simplistic art can also be as emotional or beautiful as any masterpiece..
Digital Manga Press really stumbled onto a gem with this weird yet touching tale of death, remembrance, and cute little mushroom dogs.
This series is published by Digital Manga Press. This series is complete in Japan in 5 volumes. 2 volumes have been released so far and both are currently in print.
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