On Junko Nakano’s HETAKOI and B-SHOCK
Junko Nakano’s Hetakoi is about a young man who, upon turning 20 years old, decides to head over to a hot spring. He’s by himself, trying to relax, while still kind of feeling miserable about the fact that he’s all alone. But while he’s there, he sees a young woman completely naked for the first time. Which, you know, is a momentous event in any young man’s life. After heading back to Tokyo, his outgoing friend ends up convincing him to join the Hot Springs club, since there are a lot of cute girls in it; it goes without saying that the “naked girl” is also a part of this club.
It’s at this point where you may decide to check out on Hetakoi and think to yourself: “oh, it’s just generic shounen romance, who cares.” This would be a mistake. Hetakoi largely concerns itself with the growing attraction and romantic feelings between said young man and naked girl, but within that template it manages to touch on many other emotions and ideas.
One of the main reasons that I chose to start reading Hetakoi was because I’ve grown tired of weak-willed, nothing high school protagonists and their love troubles and their school rituals which are all the same, and never change from series to series. I’ve consciously tried to find anime/manga that has college and/or adult settings because, not only do they speak more to me at this point, but they’re also rare enough that the ways in which they’re different are distinctive enough for it make a difference. Sure, Hetakoi may have a school festival chapter, but it’s surrounded by chapters where adults make decisions that have ramifications and are treated seriously.
Sex is something that’s constantly on the minds of the characters in Hetakoi. There are many humorous passages where sex and/or nudity are treated like a punchline. Think of the many scenes where our main character pictures someone naked and can’t even look at their face because of the embarrassment. Or how the main character’s best friend, nicknamed Obscene Dick, propositions every female member in the Hot Springs club. But sex is also something that’s completely serious. In Hetakoi, sex changes everything about a relationship. Two friends who had previously relied on each other solely for advice embark on a sexual relationship that’s unhealthy and based on consoling each other and trying to deal with each other’s pain. One young man wonders if the girl he likes has done it before, and wonders if that will make him think differently of her. Instead of dealing with problems, characters often try to lose themselves in sexual abandon, immerse themselves in their passion and forget everything. But this is something that’s new for the characters; this new way of dealing with their problems. Often they will think that what they’re doing is wrong, but be unable to stop. One of my favorite moments is when, with an absolutely brutal honesty, a character thinks to himself that it isn’t so much a partner he desires, but someone’s warmth.
There are moments in Hetakoi which speak to me for reasons I can barely process or comprehend. I think of how it handles those moments in your life where everyone around you is having fun and laughing, and in the middle of that you’re feeling completely miserable. There’s a great chapter near the end where such a thing happens. Our main character, although inside he’s completely alone and suffering, resolves to make the occasion a lively one. It reminded me of times where I’ve tried to block everything I may be thinking by simply doing stuff.
Nakano’s series is special because it understands how serious and how utterly silly we can be while in the pursuit of love; how much meaning we can assign the smallest things, and how utterly humbling getting to know other people can be. And it does this while being utterly hilarious. Hetakoi is a work that understands and embodies the passion of youth; and it made me completely miserable.
Nakano’s B-Shock, on the other hand, is an entirely different proposition. It’s on the whole more outlandish, more ridiculous, a high concept series. It’s about two engineering students who, thanks to their mad professor, get bombs stuck to their wrists that don’t allow them to be more than 10m apart. In essence, it’s a series where two unlikely people are forced to be together at all times. It’s also a romantic comedy.
Part of the fun of the series is seeing the realistic response to the situation. The characters begin to ask themselves: what happens if I have to use the restroom? How do I keep a job like this? Things gets even more funny/interesting when the distance gets reduced to 1m. The scenes where the characters have to constantly stick together (this means pretending to be boyfriend/girlfriend in public because otherwise why are they holding on to each other) have an absurd, but iron-clad sense of logic to them. It makes sense to tie a rope between you – what would happen if one of you fell out of bed and one of you got separated?
When the series has that laser focus on the particulars of their situation and the growing affection between the characters, it excels. But I keep getting reminded of the long stretch in volume 2, where the lead characters have to deal with a pesky ghost, and I can’t help but feel that it’s wasted time. It’s space that is being taken away from the most interesting relationship/dynamic.
How To Find It
Neither of the titles covered in this post are sadly available through legal translations, unfortunately. You will have to scour the internet to find these two works.
I hope to cover more of Nakano’s work as it becomes available, Chisa x Pon specially. Nakano passed away in 2011.
Hetakoi (2007 – 2011)
B-Shock (1999 – 2000)