In case you were thinking that maybe the edge of a river is just the number one place where teenagers, across all cultures, find dead bodies, Kyoko Okazaki has written “I love Keanu” as a bit of locker graffiti in chapter one, signaling that she, the author of this Japanese manga from 1993-94, is familiar with the 1986 American film River’s Edge, with which it shares a similar set-up.
An actor’s position as an object of desire is contingent on the roles they play, and in 1993, prior to his pivot to action heroics, loving Keanu Reeves meant loving the angst displayed in River’s Edge, or the doomed gay questing of My Own Private Idaho. In River’s Edge, he yells at his mother’s boyfriend, “You just stay around here to fuck my mother and eat her food.... Mother-fucker! Food-eater!” Such capacity for adolescent rage was crucial to his appeal. Lust is not built on bone structure alone: the infatuation projected onto a persona involves a romantic notion that such a boy could be saved from his self-destructive impulses, or alternately, that their self-destruction could be enabled, or they could help you enable your own. All of these different varietals of romantic/erotic fantasy blossom among adolescents that have yet to learn the distinction between good relationships and bad.
Kyoko Okazaki’s River’s Edge is powerful precisely because the particular tone she excels at—presenting an upsetting nihilism with pop song exuberance, so that things feel fashionable and of the moment even as they proceed towards tragedy—speaks to widespread feelings. Loving a person you have never met is, above all, about the desire to feel something outside the scope of what your actual surroundings grants you access to. It is a response to a life that is not giving you enough to work with: an emotional landscape that feels barren and poisoned, even if by nothing more than the sheer mundanity of life outside the movies.
“A word before we begin: a laugh and a scream are very similar,” Okazaki announced at the outset of Helter Skelter (1995-96), and while that work is a little too melodramatic for my tastes, not really scanning as funny or gleeful at all to me, in River’s Edge she operates perfectly within a range where she vacillates between such hysterical extremes. The howl of existential despair bleeds into the laughter of psychotic abandon that emerges in response. Okazaki arrives at a place of lunatic catharsis, though her characters are reticent to articulate any emotion. Kozue Yoshikawa appears in Helter Skelter as well. In that book, set within the modeling industry, her ambivalence towards her celebrity status scans as virtuous. She is young and beautiful, and stands as a threat to the book’s protagonist, Liliko, whose ambition has turned her into a monster. Liliko schemes to have the women she perceives as competitors disfigured; readers root to see Yoshikawa spared. It’s a one-way rivalry, as Yoshikawa just considers her competitor’s hatred of her interesting. This scans as psychologically healthy, in a world of grotesques. In River’s Edge, we see Yoshikawa in her high school environment, covertly binging and purging, and her indifference is shown as deep-seated enough it comes off as unsettling more than merely cool.
An infant encountering the world anew takes in each bit of stimuli and forms a mental model of reality with it. Adults cannot take surprises in such stride. Odds are approximately even that an adolescent learning of some aberrant behavior for the first time will either be upset by it or integrate it into their developing set of options of how a person might navigate the world. Haruna Wasakusa, learning of Yoshikawa’s bulimia, takes the latter route. Her nonjudgmental nature makes her a strong POV character, and endears her to her classmates that are potentially budding sociopaths. Okazaki never judges them as such, but it is implicit that they are products of their environment, and they do live downriver of the factory and its runoff effluvia.
In Yamada, we get a gay best friend that is also evil. Through him, Wasakusa learns that it is impolite to ask a gay person whether they’re a top or a bottom. It is easy to imagine the fashion-forward readers of Monthly Cutie, where River's Edge was serialized, needing this advice. Yamada is closeted, disclosing his sexuality to Wasakusa while going on dates to the aquarium with a girlfriend he openly resents. His real crush, a boy observed at such a distance that he never speaks anything we can read, is seen smiling, seemingly happy, flirting with a girl who gives him playful affectionate punches. Yamada receives more serious beatings and maybe gets off on them a little. It is Yamada who finds the dead body, washed up along the riverbank, and invites Wasakusa to take it in, although he tells her Yoshikawa is aware of it too. The corpse presents an occasion for these three characters to sit with their feelings, and so It must be kept a secret, lest it be taken away from them to be buried properly. The thoughts and feelings it engenders must remain private, because it is through possessing a secret that a teen, so beholden to their family, their school, and the expectations others have for them, can begin to feel self-possessed.
Readers are not going to receive the same memento mori effect from the corpse’s presence, insulated from the events being depicted by their nature as fiction. Still, when Okazaki cuts back and forth between panels showing two characters having sex while other characters look at a decaying corpse, it is upsetting in a way that presents a transgressive thrill, and so presents us with something analogous to what the characters are experiencing. Scrambled, short-circuited, we realize we are beyond what we are usually presented with.
I couldn’t help but think of Dennis Cooper, the author of genuinely disturbing novels of sex and violence, taken in by Keanu’s turn as a hustler in My Own Private Idaho, interviewing the actor and asking which serial killer he’d like to be the victim of. Beginning in 1989, and ending in 2000, Cooper wrote a set of five books, the George Miles cycle, named for a friend and later lover of his who died young. More recently, in 2021, he published a book, I Wished, wherein he attempts to describe what George Miles was actually like, to try to communicate what was so beautifully entrancing about this boy who walked the earth damaged and inarticulate that he would dedicate five books to him while other people who knew him in passing barely remembered him at all.
Cooper’s prose is attuned to the intimacies of language, the tool of thought which charts the internal, the fantasy that can’t be achieved in reality. Okazaki is not half as upsetting as Cooper, because she’s not an experimentalist in terms of the effects she’s after. Okazaki is a mangaka, making work for a mass audience, that’s presumably primarily women. The first image of a person we see in River’s Edge is of a girl putting on makeup, the largest amount of black in the panel being the brush she is using to apply mascara: a drawing of a girl, drawing on her face, calling attention to the skill of image-making in delicate strokes, the lash implying the lid, as if it’s something the audience can do as easily as she can. Okazaki's drawing is casually graceful here, each thin line communicating beauty while feeling like the result of a flick of the wrist, a casual gesture, like she can capture the jut of a breastbone beneath the skin as easily as you or I could flip someone off.
The face is prepared for the public. The environment defines the people who live in it. These teens wander through it, crossing bridges that across double-page spreads make up landscape-formatted images. For all of Okazaki’s social commentary, she is after a very direct sort of emotional reckoning. After the first body is buried, there is, in the end, another corpse. This one is in public, on fire, consumed by flame and onlookers both. If the earlier death, consumed privately, happened privately and without explanation, this second death plays out in such a way that it turns the book into a tragedy, obeying a classical logic wherein it is the ritual cathartic purging of all that we live with, happening publicly to be processed collectively. We never learn the cause of the first person’s death: it is simply a given, the way that death is a given when it precedes our entry into the world. Death is a tragedy when it belongs to someone who has touched our lives. There is no mystery to the first corpse, but the question remains, what is the tragedy?
Okazaki’s 1989 manga Pink was released in English in 2013, and stands revealed a decade later as distinctly ahead of its time. It is the ultimate hot girl comic, but the trend of describing oneself in those terms only emerged in the intervening years. The back cover text quotes the author describing it as a story of “love and capitalism,” and in case you don’t remember, I can assure you that people in 2013 did not talk about capitalism incessantly, as a hand-wave to describe everything that was going on in the world rendering them helpless, the way they started to do a few years later. Nor was sex work a part of the zeitgeist as something casual that might need to be done in order to comply with the demands of capitalism. That is the premise of Pink: that its main character is working as a call girl, because she has to keep the pet crocodile living in her apartment fed. Rendered in comics, such a pet is a perfect metaphor for capitalist desire, because its design is 60% mouth.
The appetite is displaced onto another, so that it exists separately from the body. In Pink, to always want more is a condition brought about by capitalism. in River’s Edge and Helter Skelter, women just have eating disorders, where the stomach never stays full enough to digest the thing it craves so that the body can be satiated. This is more incisive, because it pins the mouth onto the face. It locates the yearning maw, and places it on the individual. If one participates in unsavory acts, and waves it off with an “I’ve got to, because capitalism demands it”—the crocodile needs to be fed lest it turn its teeth to you—one is effectively distancing themselves from the desires that are at the root of suffering. This is a common behavior in America in 2023, and presumably in Japan in 1989 as well, and everywhere on the time-space continuum in between. But River’s Edge doesn’t have anything as cute as a pet crocodile to point to as the source of the character’s problems.
Interspersed throughout River’s Edge are panels of narration, indicating the interior thoughts of characters. Usually the narrator is Wasakusa. Occasionally it’s Kozue Yoshikawa, or Yamada’s spurned girlfriend, Kanna Tajima. For a few brief sequences, it’s completely indeterminate, some sort of collective narration unattributable to a single voice. At the bottom of a page that has moved through the halls of the school, alighting on supporting characters, is a panel of white text on a black background. “There is something mysterious inside our bodies.” We turn the page, and there is Kanna Tajima, knitting needles in her hands, looking like she’s on the verge of tears. Another all-black panel, with a sentence fragment, centered: “Something mysterious.” And directly below it, a parenthetical: “(Desire)”
Tajima is knitting Yamada a sweater, hoping that he’ll like it, hoping that that will mean something. For as smooth as Okazaki’s line can be, she perfectly captures the waver of a person visibly fraught in pursuit of the unattainable. (Another reason I don’t particularly enjoy Helter Skelter is because every line feels drawn with such teeth-clenching agony that the grace never shows its hand.) The girlfriend of a closeted teen can no more have her desires met than the closeted teen can his. Both of them are just as doomed to the loneliness of lives defined by longing as the fangirl pinning her hopes on a movie star like Keanu Reeves.
Sometimes people have a single desire they can never meet, often one as commonplace as wanting to be loved. For the disordered eater, two desires are twinned: to be thin and to be full. These are also common desires, that most are able to engage in an ongoing negotiation between. The disorder comes from viewing these two desires as incompatible to an impossible degree. The stomach wants one thing, the eyes another. Both are a part of the same body. What is one to do with all this want?
All you can do is scream. Or laugh.