Or, my favorite manga when I was a teenager.
In some ways, I consider Aquarium the manga that got me through my teenaged years, and even now there’s a very good chance that I’d name it as my all-time favorite manga. On its face, this is a bit mystifying, as Aquarium really isn’t anything special and doesn’t seem to bring anything unique to the table. And yet I can still tell you about when I bought it, what exactly made me end up deciding on it versus anything else I’d seen on the shelf.
Aquarium is actually a short anthology containing three of Tomoko Taniguchi’s works, The Flying Stewardess, The Heart is Your Kingdom, and, of course, the title-tale Aquarium. The first story is about a girl, Naoka, who is having trouble adjusting to her new school after having not gotten into her top-choice school. Her crush and her former best friend go to her dream school, while she’s at an all-girls’ school that she chose as her second choice simply because she had to have a second choice. Every day after school she goes to an aquarium, and one day a boy she doesn’t know begins to talk to her. Although she brushes him off at first, the boy, Usami, is persistent. When Naoka makes a terrible decision, it is Usami who helps save her, and Naoka re-discovers her will to be alive.
The Flying Stewardess is about a flight attendant, Shoko, (YES political correctness ftw!) who runs into a guy she went to high school with on one of her flights. They end up keeping in touch, and eventually they go out for dinner together, but then Shoko suddenly has doubts when it seems like the guy, Egawa, just wants to meet other flight attendants through her. But when Egawa calls her to tell her how much he has come to appreciate the job that flight attendants do, the two reconcile and we are left feeling that, surely, they will get together.
The final story is The Heart is Your Kingdom, another tale set in a high school setting. Koko is a somewhat shy girl whose face freezes up (much to her chagrin) whenever her crush, Suzuki, talks to her or looks at her. When Koko was a little girl, she and Suzuki sat next to each other in church during a sermon in which the priest said that everyone has a soulmate; she felt that Suzuki was her second half. When Suzuki helps her with taking out the trash, Koko finally finds herself at ease around him, although he has a girlfriend. Koko works up the courage and tells Suzuki that he is her other half, and although he initially leaves with his girlfriend, he comes back to Koko and tells her that he agrees.
From those three brief synopses, I’m absolutely certain that you can’t see what one could possibly find so good about any of them. And, admittedly, although I don’t dislike them, I think the latter two tales are fairly run-of-the-mill (nevertheless, I did enjoy them). Aquarium is the standout of the collection.
While Aquarium isn’t groundbreaking, it excels in execution. Taniguchi hits exactly upon what it is to be a teenager, the way that seemingly simple things tend to blot out all else. Although Naoka is unhappy because she didn’t get to go to the school her crush went to, she is also upset by the loss of her junior high friends and the fact that she feels seriously out of place at her new school. This rings true with anyone who has ever made the transition from junior high/middle school to high school, or even from high school to college, and has had doubts (which I daresay is everyone). Some may roll their eyes at Naoka’s behavior, but to do so is to forget that one was once also a teenager and felt similarly about things one now would see as, at best, petty.
While the romance aspect of the story might be idealistic (Usami, the male lead, ends up with Naoka after having approached her at the aquarium at the start of the tale, even though Naoka was very cold to him initially), it also helps fill out the tale, particularly for a teen audience; teenagers are not well-known for seeking realism in their entertainment. And the romance storyline gives the story the edge of hope it uses to illustrate the simple fact that life can get better and that one should approach things with a more positive outlook.
I feel as though I haven’t really yet convincingly made the argument for why I love this one-shot so much, of why I consider it the manga that got me through teenagerdom. When I was browsing the shelves at a bookstore, way back in 2004, I picked up a few different manga for consideration. I forget what made me pick up Aquarium, but I glanced at it, remembered having guiltily enjoyed Call Me Princess. The back cover didn’t exactly encourage me much, though (and, by the way, the synopsis there isn’t entirely accurate), and I almost put it down before pausing to flip through it. That is when I decided to buy it.
Naoka tries to kill herself part way through Aquarium, but is saved when a woman discovers her and Usami calls an ambulance. As a frequently deeply unhappy teenager, this resonated with me. I instantly put everything else back on the shelf and went to the register, paid, then went right home and read Aquarium. I knew how Naoka felt, even if she and I had felt that way for different reasons. And even though it was a fictional character, it made me feel less alone. The happy outcome also made me feel that things could work out as long as I didn’t give up.
In one of the side-notes, Taniguchi wrote, “Hello. Aquarium is not a happy story like Call Me Princess. In Japan, many kids commit suicide because of troubles they have in school.
When Aquarium was first published in a Japanese magazine, many readers told me that they have similar problems as Naoka, but they were encouraged by this story.
I hope my story will encourage readers, even if it’s just a little bit.”
I wrote a short letter to Taniguchi, even knowing that the likelihood of it ever reaching her, let alone of her being able to read it, were very, very slim. It was the only time I’ve ever written a letter to a manga-ka, and I think it will always be that way. And I’m not at all ashamed to say that I did.
Whenever I felt really daunted by life, I re-read Aquarium. I still do when I’m feeling defeated. And it still makes me feel better. And that is why Aquarium is my favorite manga.