What if you suffered the loss of your one and only true love? Could you ever again find light to fill your life or would you pine your way to oblivion? And what if you had never experienced true love? How and where could you find it? Whether in the past or in the future, one thing remains the same: the path of true love is bittersweet.
Looking at the cover art, one recognises the angular yet pretty artistic signature of the Boy's Love mangaka Nakamura Shungiku, perhaps most famous for her romantic comedy Junjo Romantica. Indeed, most of her works are indeed comedies of this genre, but this particular work steps away from merely this and goes somewhat deeper. There is indeed laughter here, but also tears of true pain and moments of the seemingly ordinary that lend themselves nonetheless to snapshots in time that are inked indelibly upon the hearts of those that remember them.
At first glance, one might think these are all self contained stories written around a single theme: the cybernetic doll. This is true to a certain extent, but they are all also interconnected, and it is not until the final story that we discover the deeper meaning behind the appearances of these dolls in the world and the stories about them that precede. Each story focuses upon a person who owns a Living Doll, and discovers truths about themselves that open their hearts to love.
Living Dolls? Love? Put aside those unworthy thoughts, for these are not THOSE kinds of stories. These are not sex robots and this is not porn. No, these are dolls that are extremely rare and hard to come by. They first appear as young children, and only grow up if lavished with love, care, and affection, just like a human child should be. As they develop, they gain a consciousness and if loved well enough, a true sentience that allows free will. They are meant as life companions, and a person who is able to move past ownership and become a caretaker and guardian reaps these highest rewards, and is rewarded with love. There is just one small thing however. Living Dolls have a short lifespan, and often after they achieve this sentience and ability for deep emotions, they die.
So why would anyone create such a thing? Why would anyone wish to own one? Perhaps it is the lure of Narcissus, for these are not quite truly alive yet neither are they machine, and how they develop and grow is a direct reflection upon the person raising it, a tangible being from the world beyond the mirror; the ultimate reflection of self. For Kotorou, the wealthy heir of the Izumi family, the Hybrid Child he found tossed in the rubbish on a street one day was an interesting toy. Spoiled, selfish, and completely self centred, he immediately thought he had found the ultimate status symbol. Naming it Hazuki, at first everyone assumed it was broken, for it did nothing. Indeed, eighteen long months passed before it spoke, and five years before it moved. But Kotorou kept lavishing attention upon it, fixated upon his new toy with the sort of dedication only a child can have. When it began to move, selfish Kotorou was pleased, for now he had a dedicated follower.
Or so he thought, for the truth is, the one who needs to see himself in this way is actually the one in need. And Hazuki grew to be the one upon whom Kotorou depended. So much so that in childhood, when people tried to throw the ragged appearing and apparently non-functional Hazuki away, Kotorou fetched him from the trash once more as he could and would have nothing and no one but Hazuki. But was this from selfishness, or love? Just how far would a seemingly self centred and spoiled young man go when the life span of the person he treasures runs out? When a Hybrid Child dies, is it truly gone? Having been built once, can it not be repaired? And how far would you go to find out?
The Child called Yuzu has another problem. He talks and moves just fine, and feels cherished by his master. Living in a secluded house in the countryside with his master, Ichi-sama, life seems to be idyllic. The house and gardens are large and beautiful, and the house staffed with loyal servants whoa re genuinely fond of Ichi-sama and Yuzu. But why is Yuzu stuck and failing to grow past the childhood stage? Yuzu is worried. Perhaps he is broken? Or since a Hybrid Child grows according to the love and care that is lavished upon it, his master worse grown tired of Yuzu and no longer cares? Yuzu confesses his fears, and gets reassuring words from Ichi, but continues to witness a troubling scene: Ichi-sama standing alone, sadly contemplative in the night enshrouded garden, accompanied only by a single small light and the scarlet flowers. Why is he sitting there? Why does he have that expression on his face? Did something wound him so much that he has been unable to grow past it? Is this why Yuzu too is stuck?
And just what does the story of the three young samurai have to do with all this? The final set of stories introduces us to Kuroda, Tsukishima, and Seya. Friends from childhood, despite their differences in social status, the friends laughed and played together, and trained together in the way of the samurai. But war is on the horizon, and the tide is turning. One era is about to end, and another begin. As with so many wars, there are consequences. Consequences that in the way of the samurai must be paid with blood. With death, those left behind pay as well, with deep grief and longing for one who will never return. Or can they? If you make their image again, and discover how to give it life, can you regain at least part of your loss? Kuroda does not know, but he refuses to merely pine, and his quest leads him to create the Hybrid Children. Each one made and sold to pay for his search for perfection. Will he ever find it? The secret lies in the pureness of one's heart and is revealed at last in a simple gesture under the sakura trees, but will he understand the significance?
This book was profound in so many ways. From the first seemingly ordinary beginning story of a selfish wealthy young man who discovers that love carries responsibilities, to final chapters dealing with Kuroda, it is not so much a book about romance as it is a psychological snapshot of what it means to love. Set against the backdrop of a Japan emerging from feudalism into a modern state, the political changes echo those of the lives of the protagonists, reflecting not only their personal tragedies and triumphs, but those of a nation. These are individuals whose lives we see in a snapshot, and whose stories reflect much more than the story being told. Truthfully, I was reminded of other books where I experienced this sort of event. During childhood, perhaps my understanding of Victorian Britain was best grasped through stories such as Oliver Twist and A Little Princess. One the surface, we saw their personal stories, but they played against a much larger stage and gave that period in time real substance. I could relate, because I now "knew" someone, and experienced a landmark event of their life during that era.
This is the same. Sliding backwards in time from the brightly lit, western style home of Kotorou's wealthy merchant family during the Meiji Restoration (late 19th century), to the retired swordsman Ichi at the beginning of the Meiji era, to Kuroda and his friends as they experience the turmoil of the violent end of the Edo period and the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, one comes to understand the personal, cultural, and political changes that led from what was old Japan towards the Japan we more or less know today. It also becomes apparent to the reader that while these things change, people do not. They play, they laugh, they love, and they suffer the same regardless of political structure, era, social status or even gender. It is the story of not just a change in dynasty, but the changes within the human heart, and the discovery of what makes us truly alive.
Nakamura Shungiku sensei also explores the nature of love in these sets of stories. From the love of a friend in a familial companion type way, to the love of your life when you meet your soul mate, and even the types of love that may rest between. They are at times funny, and often poignant, and I guarantee you will likely cry at some point, but what they are not is trivial. Despite the Living Doll premise, this is not really science fiction and despite the fantasy conceit of the Hybrid Children, it is not really fantasy either. It stands somewhere in between fantasy and realism, making this soul searching visit somehow easy to bear and enjoyable. Within these pages, one comes to truly understand that true love is always a self reflection, for as we love another and are loved in return, two truly does become one.