Suppli 1-3 by Mari Okazaki

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Okazaki, Mari. Suppli (volumes 1-3). Tokiopop, 2007-2008.

I heard some good things about Suppli when it first started coming out. Then Tokyopop put it on hiatus after three volumes, and I was discouraged from bothering to try it. But now volume four has been announced for June, so I have some hope I’ll be able to continue reading the series now that I’m involved with it.

I like to try different manga genres if I can identify works that seem interesting and quality enough. Suppli is considered “josei” written for an audience of women (as opposed to the shoujo manga that floods the market and is aimed at girls). I suspect these target audiences are more fluid than a simple label would have us believe. Suppli has a female protagonist and many of her issues are focused on her situation and perspective as a young woman, but there is universality.

One thing I love about Suppli is that it’s about work and life. Quick, name five other comics about work, regular job type work? (No, work as a comics artist doesn’t count.) Yeah, I can’t either. Work has been consistently downplayed in comics since the beginning. What does Walt from Gasoline Alley (a strip that otherwise is quite focused on a sense of realism) do? I’ve read years of that strip, and I have no clue. Even when we know a character’s job and see them at work, more often than not it is only peripheral to any plot/story/theme. And when work is central to the comic, it’s a job like “assassin” or “detective” or “police officer.”

Suppli is about work. Minami, the protagonist, is a twenty-something working at an advertising firm (no, it’s not like Mad Men at all). She works hard, perhaps too hard, as, when early on in volume she breaks up with her long time boyfriend, she realizes she has no life outside her work. She barely even knows her co-workers. Suppli is (so far) the story of her navigating the waters of work and trying to figure out how to have a life (and romance, of course) at the same time.

Romance is certainly one of the bigger narratives in the series. There is unrequited romance, there are affairs, there is work place romance, there are old lovers. One focus in these volumes is Minami’s burgeoning relationship with one of her co-workers. I was pleased that Okazaki does not play the “Will they won’t they” card, but rather focuses much of the drama of the relationship on both of their busy work schedules.

Workplace politics also play a large part in the narrative. Gender equality is an ongoing issue Minami confronts, as are creativity struggles with management and clients. Like many in creative corporate jobs, she has a clear passion for her work, but is stymied by those with limiting and conservative views. Okazaki waits until volume 3 to really show us Minami’s passion for her job, rounding out her obsession with her work in a way that adds depth to the character. In volume 3 there is also a telling scene. Minami and a female co-worker are one of three groups working on a competition project (apparently, different groups in the company compete to make the commercial). At the big presentation meeting they are shown as the only two women surround by more than a dozen suited men. They have been designated as the sacrificial lamb group, given no resources, while the male groups all have much more to work with.

These story elements are interesting in themselves, to a point, and one could easily see them as the focus of a television drama, but what got me interested in Suppli in the first place, was looking at examples of Okazaki’s pages. Her characters have a fairly standard manga style, elongated, thin bodies rendered with a thin clean line, but her page layouts and panel breakdowns are both attractive and expressive. They are often quite complex and make extensive use of the two page spread.

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[Don’t forget to read right to left.]

This wonderfully busy spread uses a central static image surrounded by small active panels. Okazaki uses this type of layout quite a few times, often, as in this case, as a kind of montage of time passing. In the last two panels we see an important note slipping out of site. Minami walks off the page in the previous panel, partially taking us with her, so it’s easy to, like she does, miss that note.

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Here’s another spread situated around a central image. This takes place during a tense meal with Minami and her romantic rival. I really like the manga trope for intense silence (the balloons with the ellipses). In film, silence is easy to do, but with an already silent medium like comics, having some kind of visual shorthand adds an intensity to the scene, particularly, in this case, with how many times the balloons is scattered across the pages.

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Shojo manga are known for their flowery pages, flowers themselves are often drawn non-diegetically into the pages. Okazaki is less flowery, but she does work non-diegetic motifs into the pages as symbolic elements. These tend to have significance in relation to earlier parts of the story. For instance, the scene above between Minami and the guy she becomes interested in, has them walking among the cherry blossoms (see above). Okazaki draws the blossoms with an abstract flourish of almost scribbled geometric lines. I love the way the cherry blossoms are integrated into the scarf that’s covering up her face in the upper right as if the blossoms are engulfing her. It brings the spread nicely together the way both sides of it have the faces looking in towards the center, focusing their attention and, thus, ours on the blossoms. The blossoms in the lower right also sort of look like her breath, visible in the cold.

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This blossom pattern reappears at later points in the story as a symbolic element of the pages (see above). She also utilizes the image of a salmon swimming upstream as a frequent motif for struggle against the tide (so to speak). At a certain point, the appearance of the fish itself takes on a meaning, like an unbounded visual thought balloon. These little non-textual pieces of thought and feeling are wonderfully effective for the attentive reader, but easy to miss if one isn’t picking up on their early usage when the context/meaning is clearest.

Similarly, when Minami and her new guy first have sex, the scene occurs after they’ve been caught in a rain storm. Okazaki splatters water across the pages and in the gutters between the main panels. Later, she repeats a similar motif at another key moment in their relationship, while they are are the beach having a romantic moment, drawing those major events in their relationship together visually.

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Okazaki has a tendency to hint back at previous events in an often subtle way. In this part of a page we see Minami thinking about marriage. The panel of trash bags seems out of place here, yet this image calls back an earlier night when she asked her then boyfriend to remember to take out of the trash. The next morning, the bags were still there. We might say that the garbage just collected in their relationship.

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One last spread, this one is from the only chapter (so far) that is focalized and narrated through a character other than Minami. This provides an example of where Okazaki’s layouts offer an unclear reading path. The two sets of differently toned caption boxes offer two different paths along the page, as if the narrator’s thoughts themselves are scattered, though I’m not sure that’s a proper interpretation here… The unclear reading pathway is by convention a failure, a detriment, but I can’t really see it that way here. The open page layouts seem to allow much more leeway for a wandering eye. I should note that both the fruit and the fish on this spread are more than simple decorations, but, like the blossoms above, they hold meaning of their own.

Throughout Suppli there are visually rich and dynamic pages like the one’s above. It’s impressive and one of those really clear manga differences.

(Note to self: Compare Okazaki’s layouts with Sakurazawa’s.)

[This is part 13 of a 30 part series where I am writing daily reviews for the month of December.]