Girlfriend in a Coma

Sleeping Bride is an oft-overlooked entry in the filmography of the director Hideo Nakata. Made after his two world-famous Ring movies, and two years before his acclaimed Dark Water, it seems to have been ignored by many critics because Nakata was heralded at the time as the new face of Japanese horror, and Sleeping Bride did not fit that category. It is not a horror film. It is a quirky, some might say, perversely one-sided romance, between a boy and the comatose girl with whom he falls in love. It is also based on a 1971 manga story written for a teen magazine by the creator of Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka.

In 1971, Tezuka was in his early forties, and clinging anxiously to his celebrity status. In February of that year, he became the chairman of the Tezuka Award committee, which handed out prizes to the best new artists at Shonen Jump magazine. In May, we see him signing books at a department store, and in August at another department store, he opened an exhibition of his work. But all this activity concealed desperate times. Most critically for understanding Tezuka in this period, in September 1971 he stepped down as the Managing Director of his own studio, Mushi Production. In hindsight, we know that this was a sign of great financial turmoil, and that the beleaguered Tezuka had taken all the company’s debts upon himself. Mushi Production, the child of his creative genius, was hanging by a thread, and the onset of a recession in 1973 would completely wreck it, along with much of the Japanese animation business. It is tempting to see Tezuka himself in the absent father of the Sleeping Bride, who disappears, disconsolate, from the story while waiting for a magical cure to rescue his pride and joy.

Tezuka kept a feverish working pace, determined to drag his company out of debt. In the list of Tezuka’s actual publications that year, we see a large number of occurrences of the word yomikiri: one-shot. Amid ongoing arguments with the remaining Mushi staff over how his work should be treated, he was largely avoiding new, large-scale serials. Instead, he threw his efforts into an incredibly prolific scattershot approach. He wrote comics for any magazine that would take him, and he churned them out as fast as he could think them up.

Published in Shonen Sunday magazine on 21st February 1971, Garasu no Noh or The Glass Brain, sometimes known as the Transparent Brain, was a one-shot tale that would become the basis of Sleeping Bride. The central narrative remains unchanged in the movie – a sleeping girl, her very name a pun on “yume” (Jpn: dream), is the passive prize sought by a boy who comes to regard her as the living manifestation of Sleeping Beauty. But Yuichi is not the only man in Yumi’s life. Her father is noticeable by his absence, fleeing his responsibilities only to fret repeatedly about his daughter’s fate – an unkind twist, perhaps, on the many absent benefactors who lurk in the background of stories for Japanese girls. In her father’s place is Yumi’s physician, an uncompromising figure representing the arrogance and corruption of the adult world.

Chiaki Konaka’s film script sticks closely to Tezuka’s original, usually repeating it panel for panel. Yumi’s mother, in the comic, dies in a train crash, unlike the plane crash whose eerily quiet aftermath marks the film’s opening shots. Konaka’s only noteworthy addition is a glimpse of the world Yuichi is leaving behind, framing his trips to the hospital with snatches of a mundane high-school romance. In terms of Japanese drama, particularly on TV and in manga, it is clear for all to see who Yuichi’s sweetheart should be, and it’s not the unknown princess in a coma. In returning repeatedly to the hospital, Yuichi repudiates the life that fate seems to have in store for him, in favour of the responsibilities of life with Yumi.

In introducing the concept of a pure, innocent love between children, blossoming when they are finally united in their teens, Tezuka prefigures a common trope in modern manga, known as osana najimi, or childhood friends. Anime and manga are riddled with mawkish romances between teenagers who last met when they were toddlers. But here we see an early prefiguring, not of the girl next door, so much as the girl in the next hospital ward.

It is worth mentioning that Charly, the film based on Daniel Keyes’s Hugo award-winning Flowers for Algernon, similarly depicted a hospital patient who comes alive and flourishes very briefly, before fate intervenes. Released in America in 1968, Charly reached Japan shortly afterwards, and remains a popular staple with local audiences – it has even been remade as two stage plays, a radio play, and as a Japanese TV series, and was even referenced in the film End of Evangelion. If Charly were an influence, it certainly would not be the first time that Tezuka had lifted the bare bones of a Hollywood story pitch and made it uniquely his own – his early Metropolis was based on his reading of a magazine article about the Fritz Lang original.

Both the Sleeping Bride manga and film focus their interest on the nature of Yumi – a girl with the mind of a child, but the body of a woman. In the last 20 years, in the anime and manga world, this has been reversed, eroticised, and put to rather creepy use, in a succession of images of females with the bodies of children but the desires of adults. But the concept of the ingénue in manga is something that Tezuka was very interested in exploring, and indeed, at the time he was writing Sleeping Bride, he was also writing a single ongoing series, with a similar protagonist. Like many schoolgirl superheroines, the titular Marvellous Melmo was able to transform into an older, more glamorous version of herself. She could right wrongs and rescue her siblings in this adult form, but also learned about the changes undergone by the human body in puberty. Melmo, perhaps, was already on Tezuka’s mind when he tried a different take on the idea of a child in a woman’s body: The Sleeping Bride.

In the form of screenwriter Chiaki Konaka, Sleeping Bride had a perfect shepherd to the screen. A writer for many anime and live-action shows, Konaka has demonstrated a recurring interest in the position of women in modern society. As the creator of the anime Armitage III, he experimented with the implications of technology that made it possible for android women to give birth. In his remake of Bubblegum Crisis, he accentuated the fetishised nature of the heroines’ special armoured suits, showing how they confined and imprisoned, even as they supposedly empowered. Perhaps most notably, Konaka also wrote the obscure early digital anime, Malice Doll, a surreal tale about inanimate sex dolls coming to life.

Japanese popular culture often seems obsessed with dolls, with passive women, with spousal blank slates upon whom a man writes character and desire. Many Japanese shopgirls are still trained to pitch their voices to infantile heights. Many celebrity role models continue to act in a relentlessly childish manner. The late psychologist Takeo Doi identified an element of the Japanese character which he called “the anatomy of dependence”, whereby power roles in Japan are defined by every relationship requiring a parent-role in charge, and a child-role seeking support and indulgence.

Doi’s 1986 book The Anatomy of Dependence, was regarded on its publication as a significant contribution to the psychiatry of the Japanese character. But notably, it was published fifteen years after Tezuka wrote this story about a woman with the mind of a child. Nor, for Tezuka, was there the quick easy fix of happy ending or a convenient bereavement. Yuichi’s love for Yumi is pure and surpasses any other concern in his life, as we discover in the moments that close both the original comic and the film it inspired. Yumi may live a lifetime in her scant days awake, but Yuichi lives a lifetime too, the old-fashioned way.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade.