Mangaka Ichikawa Haruko and the beautiful horror of growth

By: Sinclair August May 22, 20190 Comments
A gem person holding a finger to their lips as their face cracks and breaks away

CONTENT WARNING: Discussions of pedophilia, incest and body horror. SPOILERS for Ichikawa’s short stories and events from Land of the Lustrous chapters covered in the anime adaptation.

There’s no one else doing manga quite like Ichikawa Haruko does it. Not only is her work recognizable at a glance from its simple, spindly character designs and striking compositions, her stories tread a fine line between hard sci-fi and surrealism—or perhaps sci-fi as surrealism—that few other creators care to walk.

While her one-shots have been periodically published in Kodansha’s Afternoon magazine since 2006’s award-winning “Insects and Songs,” her breakout work is the serialized Land of the Lustrous, starting in 2012 and currently at nine volumes. The series has always been a cult hit among manga fans, and was recently brought to the attention of Western fandom with its masterful anime adaptation.

A bpb-haired figure looking toward the camera. they're tinted purple against a red-washed background and many bright lights

Lustrous tells the story of a beautiful, desolate world inhabited by androgynous human gemstones under the guidance of the mysterious Master Kongo, and their ongoing war against the Lunarians who hunt them for jewelry. More than that, though, it’s about Phosphophyllite (or “Phos”), the youngest and most fragile of the gems, and their search for purpose and understanding.

It’s a poignant and timely message for a generation defined by lack of direction in the face of seemingly insurmountable powerlessness. Lustrous is a truly unique work that will hopefully get the second anime season it rightfully deserves.

However, the themes addressed in Lustrous are far from new ground for Ichikawa. Her one-shots—collected in the two-volume anthology simply titled Ichikawa Haruko Collection—invariably touch on similar themes, the most prominent of which being unique sci-fi settings, body horror, and unconventional families.

A tube of human figures extending into darkness, with another small figure moving toward them

The worlds of her works are both meticulously detailed and utterly surreal. It’s not unusual for Ichikawa to, say, spend whole pages on dense explanations of deep-sea ecosystems to explain how a woman finds herself hollowed out by sentient shellfish. The world of Lustrous—where gemstones are given life and consciousness by micro-organisms that feed on sunlight and can move between materials to incorporate foreign substances into their bodies—actually has less overt semi-hard-science worldbuilding than many of her one-shots.

This worldbuilding exists in service of Ichikawa’s other pet themes as much as it does for its own sake. For one, it facilitates the body horror that is almost synonymous with her work. The way she depicts it is highly unconventional: bodies that shatter, bodies that burst into fractal mechanisms, bodies that reject their own skin in metallic discs and leave only holes behind. It’s a strange and beautiful sort of horror.

That said, it’s never just suffering for its own sake. More often than not, it’s in the service of a symbolic or literal rebirth; a necessary loss to allow for new growth.

Two figures in matching black outfits helping Phos stand up with their new, striped legs

This is illustrated very literally in “Star Lovers,” where a cloned plant girl is “pruned” down to a toddler state. She loses her memories in the process, which allows her to experience her childhood again in a healthier environment. Phos is a stellar example of this as well: it’s after the outward change of losing their legs and having them replaced that Phos begins to change inwardly as well and find their purpose.

In fact, a great deal of the body horror in Ichikawa’s work is at least partially self-inflicted—a deliberate choice, rather than something enacted upon them—and, in the case of her one-shots, often a sacrifice for someone else.

This is where her love of strange families lives, a particular fascination that manifests in a few different ways. Several of her earlier one-shots, such as The Kusaka Siblings, feature found sibling relationships between humans and non-humans which end with the non-humans selflessly sacrificing themselves, collapsing into their true selves beautifully and tragically.

Her later works move away from this simple narrative into increasingly complex and nuanced variations. A 25-Hour Vacation in particular features a noteworthy inversion, where a woman gives up her humanity and her legs to make up for an injury she failed to protect her brother from, years ago. This is depicted not as a generous act, but one born of needless guilt twisted into obsession.

The gems of Lustrous are another version of Ichikawa’s fasciation with amorphous bonds. There are of course the nebulously fraternal-platonic-romantic relationships between the gems themselves, but more than that is their relationship to Master Kongo, the eldest among them. Kongo is the only one who doesn’t share the same body type and uniform as the others, and is positioned both as a beloved, wise caretaker and as an untrustworthy figure withholding important information.

This is reminiscent of the clone families found in Ichikawa’s one-shots, where creators live with their creations as siblings or children without revealing their inhuman status to them. Though, hopefully Lustrous’s Kongo will bear more resemblance to the genuinely caring, conflicted insect designer of “Insects and Songs” than the manipulative, abusive uncle of “Star Lovers.”

Phos and Kongo talking at the end of a long hallway. subtitle: we are too complex to be satisfied with simply living

And speaking of abuse, Ichikawa also isn’t afraid to confront difficult subjects—such as incest and pedophilia—in her work, which has led to a certain amount of controversy in the fandom. Some have argued that she endorses these things through her work, and her fascination with body horror is a way of infantilizing characters for the purposes of titillation.

However, there’s a big difference between depicting something and endorsing it. It’s perfectly all right—even necessary—to make media that includes ugly subjects like sexual abuse. These things do happen in real life, and pretending that’s not the case by refusing to even speak about it only makes it easier for predators to take advantage of people’s ignorance.

What’s important is to make it clear in the work that this behavior isn’t acceptable, whether it’s by overtly punishing the perpetrator, focusing on the harm they cause, or emphasizing that such behaviors are the product of a twisted mindset. And while Ichikawa certainly does depict pedophilia and incest in her work, there’s nothing to suggest she views it as anything other than toxic.

A bald adult looking down at a young figure lying facedown on the grass

Manga Translation:
Satsuki: Pedophile.
Uncle: Don’t be like that, narcissist.

The aforementioned “Star Lovers” is the most obvious example of this. In this one-shot, a boy named Satsuki accidentally cut off his finger as a child while making a card for his beloved uncle. Years later, when Satsuki goes to visit him, he finds that his finger has grown into a young girl called Tsutsuji, who is the uncle’s lover. Disturbing, to be sure, but like Ichikawa’s use of body horror, it serves a purpose.

“Star Lovers” is first and foremost a story about clone ethics. Both Satsuki and Tsutsuji are burdened with the knowledge of their inhumanity, and Tsutsuji in particular struggles with her sense of obligation both towards the boy she was born from and the man who cultivated her.

A man holding a thin child who embraces him around the neck

Manga Translation:
Tsutsuji: That’s right. In the morning I’m your mother, during the day I’m your daughter, and at night I’m your lover.

When Satsuki expresses a desire to become one with Tsutsuji again—the exact meaning of which is never made clear—all she can think to do is cut off her arm so he can grow it into someone who will selflessly love him, the way she loves her “father.”

Satsuki is confused and horrified by this, and even the uncle seems to finally realize the consequences of his actions. He prunes Tsutsuji down to a toddler state, causing her to lose her memories, with the implication being that this time he will raise her to be his daughter and nothing more.

“A 25-Hour Vacation” also features incestuous tension between adult siblings, but much like in “Star Lovers,” this is depicted as an unhealthy manifestation of obligation, guilt, and a perceived loss of humanity. These works might not come out and say “INCEST IS BAD” in big flashing letters, but they depict both the causes and the consequences as nothing but harmful.

A black and white image of Cinnabar extending a wave of mercury from their fingers

While it’s understandable that some readers might want to avoid the stories in question—whether because they find them triggering or simply unpleasant—to condemn Ichikawa’s entire body of work is a gross oversimplification of the ideas at play within them.

Ichikawa’s manga are complex, surreal, and don’t shy away from unsavory themes, which is why they sometimes suffer at the hands of interpretations that look no deeper than the surface. More importantly, it’s a shame that people might be scared away from the work of such a brilliant and unique mangaka based on these arguments—especially when Land of the Lustrous, her only work legally available in English, features no such elements.

If you haven’t experienced Lustrous yet, either in anime or manga form, I highly recommend you take a look. There really is nothing else like it.

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