Writer/Artist : Masakazu Katsura
Weekly Shonen Jump, December 1989-April 1992
It is trite to say that love, as a concept, is something not so easy to explain. We do not mean that love cannot be analyzed and presented in a clear form, but rather, it can both be seen as something more fluid than we may wish to admit. To say that love is not something with a meaning that can be meticulously put to paper is akin to saying that one of the staples of human experience is (and must be seen as) less of a stable concept; yet, is it not true that as time passes we find ourselves drawn to a different explanation as to why that certain person (or those certain people, we are not prudes) does manage to make us feel so elated and anxious, the proverbial butterflies flying aimlessly inside our bellies? Surely, we do nonetheless remember the first steps towards this direction, our faces the victim of acne, when, as teenagers, we might have started our journey into this so well-known human experience. Sometimes, truth be told, we thought the world meant nothing if we could not be with that person (or people, once again, we are not prudes), which, truth be twice told, was just a way of masquerading the fact that in reality all we wanted was just to be bare naked.
In Masakauzu Katsura’s magnum opus, Video Girl Ai (電影少女, Den’ei Shōjo) the topic it all moves around, the metaphorical star to which all characters act accordingly, is (it should come as no surprise) love. This is the kind of love we see in Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet. It is a world set in contemporary Japan, with solid verisimilitude, so that when the elements of science-fiction (and magic, or something similar, as the writer never explicitly gives us any kind of explanation) seep in. We are left wondering what is actually going on.
Here is a synopsis, from https://myanimelist.net/anime/201/Video_Girl_Ai
After a crushing rejection, the heartbroken Youta Moteuchi trudges home. On his way, a dimly lit video store catches his eye, and he ends up purchasing a “video girl” tape meant to ease the hearts of lonely men. However, when he tries to play it in his broken VCR, a beautiful girl leaps out of his TV and lands on his bed. Calling herself Ai Amano, she looks like a golden opportunity for Youta to finally experience true love—that is, until her personality, now troubling thanks to the broken VCR, shows through. Despite her flaws, however, Ai wholeheartedly promises she will ensure Youta finds happiness and true love in his life.
Video Girl Ai follows the daily life of a teenage boy and his pursuit of a fulfilling romance. With the help of his virtual guardian angel, Youta sets forth to find the girl of his dreams.
As the eponymous Ai is brought into our world, there is a twinning of situational comedy and delicate love story (triangles, plural) born out of her appearance. We are presented a series of stories that try to answer the question of “what is love?”. At the same time, we turn one page after the other trying to find who is going to end up with who – even though, if we are honest, it seems difficult not to root for the ones who are “destined” (by the writer, that is) to be together.
Reading the serialized novel as simply a matter of two people finding a way to be a couple is a mistake. Mr Katsura’s narrative structure tries to give us, first and foremost, is a psychological analysis of how a person’s mind works when feelings (romantic feelings, of course) are involved. Love, then, and the idea of a relationship are here seen as being the long list of steps to take to fully become not simply an adult, but also (which, perhaps, is the most important element) mature.
A bildungsroman, Video Girl Ai tries to have us question what that feeling we call love actually is, and how it can change who we are by making us a better person. We accept not simply the kind of good it can do us, but also the hard lessons that we must learn both by having our heart broken and by breaking other people’s hearts.
And then we get to the story’s depiction of sex. The way sex is here presented can easily be seen as something to be approached only with care, something to be done only with those we love. It is difficult to say whether Mr Katsura is simply mimicking the way teenagers think, or whether he is imposing his own point of view on the characters. Whatever it might be, the end result does come off as perhaps a bit too naive and too prudish, so that sex is seen as a terrible act if performed just for the sake of it (once again, only love should lead to it).
Yet, as risible as it might seem in some parts, the overall structure does actually pay off. The meaning of “self-searching” is here given free rein to work as a fruitful topic that lies beneath the story. In the end, it becomes part and parcel of the main idea that love is, as it should be, not something easy.
We are however left wondering is whether this serialized novel can actually work. Its structure(s) aside, forgetting for a moment the duty of the reviewer who simply has to dissect the architecture, what we should ask ourselves is whether we are ready to go back to our own teenage years, if we have left that phase, or if we, being of that age, are ready to discuss the topic itself.
Love changes (as we stated about its fluidity at the beginning) as we grow older, what is it, then, that we should take from this book? Is it just a glorification and idealization of something that, in reality, is nothing but a series of physical urges masquerading as deep feelings? Perhaps it is such idealization that should serve as the basis for not feeling deprived of a real discussion. Video Girl Ai idealizes love, but it does so in a way that can be related exclusively by those people who have experienced it during their teenage years, a harmless recognition of who we were (or are).
The story encapsulates the feverish sense of doom and uneasiness teenagers feel. And, thanks to an intelligent hand weaving a tale, it manages to state that, yes, love is important, but we should not forget that to appreciate it we need to grow and become mature about it.