One pleasant trend in manga this year was the marked increase in stories about women. Not girls, mind you - there are a never-ending stream of stories about high school girls. No, I mean actual grown-ass women doing things, and that includes geeky things like cosplay.
COMPLEX AGE (Konpurekksu Eiji), by Yui Sakuma. First published in 2014 and first published in North America in 2016.
Most of the time, Nagisa is just another 26 year old office worker, but her true love is cosplay. In particular, she loves dressing up as the main character from her favorite magical girl show and she demands no less than perfection. That's why she'll stay up all night working on costumes, making plans with her fellow cosplayers, and scanning the internet for commentary from others on her cosplay. So how will Nagisa cope when a new girl joins the group who is everything that Nagisa wants to be?
Odds are good that most of you reading this right now know what it feels like to have to hide your hobby. It's not that you're necessarily ashamed of it, but you know that your parents, your coworkers, your peers might not understand it. They might even scorn you for taking interest in something that is seen as juvenile or even just plain weird by most adults. If you know what that feeling is like, then you are going to relate a lot to the heroine of Complex Age, even if you're not into cosplay like she is.
For Nagisa, cosplay is the one good thing in her life. She lives at home (which admittedly is not an unusual thing for a single woman in Japan), she works in a dead-end temp job, and most of her paycheck goes towards her hobby. She's damn good at it too, and she deservedly takes pride in her work. That's a double-edged sword for her though, as it means that she takes ever little insult (be it in person or online) wounds her pride. Worse still, because her hobby is so otaku-centric, she can't share it with her family or peers lest it damage her reputation. That's a problem when we learn that she's got enough of a inferiority complex as is. She already struggles enough trying to recreate the proportions of a cute, tiny anime girl on her full grown and taller-than-average body. She also longs to be cute and tiny herself. It's too early to tell whether this is a desire to return to her youth or just the standard complain where any woman who isn't tiny, feminine, and kawaii isn't valued, but it adds a sadness and even a desperation to Nagisa's work that might not be there otherwise. It's a side of female otakudom that we very seldom see and it's one that's very welcome and all too relatable.
The conflict doesn't enter the story until Aya does. Aya is everything that Nagisa is not: young, adorable, tiny, and oblivious to the notion that anyone could be ashamed about cosplay. She's the spitting image of Nagisa's favorite character, and when her cosplay group asks her to put together a costume for Aya it's clearly a stab in the heart. Thankfully, Nagisa's friends remind her that cosplay is about more than just appearance. It's about losing yourself in a character you love and sometimes going to great lengths to get the perfect shot. It's a really heartwarming place to end things...until one last twist right at the very end. It seems that Nagisa's well-compartmentalized life is about to get shaken up. It's an unexpected end to a to a book that's rather like Nagisa herself: unassuming on the surface, but with a lot of heart, dedication, and understanding about its heroine and the life she leads just underneath.
For what is technically a seinen series, the artwork here is quite cute. That's not to say that it looks like shoujo artwork, but there's something about the roundness of the eyes and all the cute costumes that lends a certain feminine quality to the otherwise ordinary body types and pretty, if not striking faces. It's a good combination, one that helps the story feel contemporary. It also helps that Sakuma is a talented enough artist to get a lot of emotion through to the reader just through Nagisa's eyes. She's too polite to voice the issues that trouble her, but her eyes can't help but betray the worries that nag at her mind.
The paneling can be a bit all over the place, but most of the time it's a quality that's used well to convey the chaos of a major cosplay shoot as well as the behind-the-scenes preparation. It's a controlled chaos, if you will. Otherwise it's fairly ordinary, although she does break out the big dramatic angles for the more emotional parts of the story. Overall, it's a good fit to the story.
There's also a one shot that was basically the early version of this story. It's got quite a few differences from the finished product, but those differences make it all the more interesting. For starters, it's not about a woman obsessed with cosplay, but with goth-loli clothing. She's not a 26-year-old office worker but instead a 35-year old married woman (with a husband who supports her hobby, no less). It also examines what happens when a fan realizes that she's starting to out-age her given fandom, although here there is a conclusion and it's rather bittersweet. It's a good one-shot all on its own and stands as a testament to Sakuma's skill and to the good idea she already had.
It's also got a rather thorough translation guide, moreso than one usually sees in Kodansha books. Most of that is due to the cosplay scene-specific terminology and rules mentioned here, but it's a well-appreciated touch.
Complex Age takes a perspective and a fandom that is seldom featured in licensed manga and makes the most of it, giving us insight not only into what drives a cosplayer but also how growing older within it changes how you feel and how you present yourself to the world. It's a real quiet gem of a license and one I hope more people check out in the year to come.
This series is published by Kodansha Comics. This series is ongoing in Japan with 6 volumes available. 2 volumes have been published and are currently in print.
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