First and foremost, I think it is very important to understand that I have very little experience with the manga genre. My review of Breathe Deeply is really my first serious walk through the Japanese storytelling medium. While I don’t have much prior knowledge to compare it to, this turned out to be as good a place as any to begin my manga journey.
Like many things with this book, I had to familiarize myself with the creative team. Doton Yamaaki is actually the pen name for a Japanese husband and wife team who have won a number of literary awards. One of the most interesting things that my research turned up is that this is the celebrated couple’s first book to be translated into English. While there were some indicators pointing to the fact that the original language might not be English, for the most part the translation was smooth and easy to follow.
It took me a couple of attempts to get used to reading the book from right to left. I knew manga books operated this way, what I didn’t realize was that the actual panels and speech bubbles within the panels also communicated from right to left. The mini graphic organizer inside the front cover was a great deal of help! Two other features that took a little getting used to were the absence of punctuation and the random insertion of Japanese characters to represent sounds (like chairs squeaking). But as a relative manga noob, I found the idiosyncrasies interesting.
The story itself can be best described as a romantic drama inspired by the longtime battle between science and morality. Doton Yamaaki do a fantastic job of marrying science and romance in this five hundred page graphic fiction. The scientific references are detailed and convincing, but not overwhelming. It would be easy to refer to embryonic stem cell research in a graphic novel and have it come across as heavy handed or “overly” researched. Doton Yamaaki’s research is presented with an expert voice, but only so much in that the reader quickly trusts the creator’s facts. It has been a while since I have thought about stem cell research, so it was refreshing to have Doton Yamaaki present it in both an interesting and informative fashion.
While the reader meets many characters throughout the book, it is the three main characters that pull at the reader’s heart strings. What would a romance story be without some type of a love triangle? At the center of our trigon is the tragic beauty Yuko. Yuko is a pixie-like girl who has the misfortune of being born with a genetic heart defect. Jockeying for her attention are the other two main characters, Sei and Oishi. All three characters are forced to overcome troubles (Yuko’s heart defect is terminal, Sei’s intellect ostracizes him from society, and Oishi comes from rather humble means), which inevitably only serves to bring the characters closer together.
After the death of Yuko, both male characters decide to dedicate their lives to the study of cardiology. Believing that he is honoring Yuko’s dying wishes, Sei dedicates his studies towards the use of polymers within the human body. Both his insistence that humans are nothing more than a series of connected bacteria and his cold demeanor after the death of Yuko, create a series of substantial roadblocks for Sei. Oishi struggles to overcome his modest station in life to become a stem cell geneticist. Both boys’ ideologies are at complete odds with one another. It doesn’t take long to figure out that their shared past and public disrespect for one another’s studies will result in a passionate collision.
Doton Yamaaki really do a fantastic job of making me care about the daily struggles of these two characters. Even though they are polar opposites of one another, I find myself rooting for both characters and relating well to their development as the book progresses.
The first half of the book kept me riveted page after page. The way the creators flipped between the present and the past created a layered feeling to the book, which gave the story a sense of complexity and sophistication. About half way through, however, a major plot twist is revealed and the focus moves away from Sei and Oishi. Personally I think this is a mistake, as the emphasis shifts from the character development of the boys, which was both intriguing and believable. The revelation shifts the focus of the book in a direction which I personally felt I couldn’t relate to as well. This is not to say that the ending wasn’t successful. It created drama using an unforeseen twist, so it couldn’t be all bad. I just thought it took a step backwards as soon as the focus shifted from the boys.
Despite being printed in black and white, the artwork has a smoldering beauty to it. Lots of subtle greys and blurred backgrounds create a quiet, poetic backdrop for this intense medical drama. In this way, the backgrounds are often at odds with the intensity of the story, but this only serves to heighten the sense of loss found in the underlying story line.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the sexual tension depicted throughout the book, as well. Whether it was a hiked skirt or an unbuttoned blouse, the underlying sexuality of the art was playful.
Despite disagreeing with the direction the authors took this book, there is no denying that it was a powerful read. Science was blended with love in a way that is bound to stir the soul and raise many questions about ethics and morality. Ultimately, I felt as though I came away all the better for having read Breathe Deeply. Not only did I learn more about stem cell research, I learned more about myself. What I mean is, I was forced to look deep within myself and ask, “How much would I be willing to sacrifice in the name of love?” Would I take a knife to my own chest? Would I fake my death to protect the one I loved? I’m not sure I’m quite as strong as the characters from this book. But I know that I will try to be from this day forward.
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review.