I wanted to take some time to discuss Moyoco Anno’s new comic In Clothes Called Fat late last year, and I’m finally getting around to it now. Recently, Katie Skelly wrote a thoughtful review of In Clothes Called Fat and compared it to Kyoko Okazaki’s Helter Skelter, a seminal josei manga of the 1990s. After having a more informal chat with Katie about the two books, I’m going to forgo my normal review process to respond to Katie by talking about Kyoko Okazaki’s earlier book Pink as another influence on In Clothes Called Fat.
This is not necessarily a response in terms of me arguing for or against Katie’s points, but rather I am using her review as a jumping off point for further discussion.
Some recommended reading before I get started:
In Clothes Called Fat is the story of Noko, a young office worker who has a stress-eating problem. Bullies at work attack her for her large size, and blame missteps and subversive actions on her. She deals with this harassment at work by overeating, a cycle that makes her feel upset and alone. To make matters worse, her deadbeat boyfriend Saito is cheating on her with Mayumi, the woman who bullies Noko at work.
To be direct, I see In Clothes Called Fat as an indictment of the objectification of women and the negative effects of this objectification in the lives of men and women. The practice of exposing this objectification is a commonality in Anno’s printed works, and is also a key theme in the works of Anno’s mentor Kyoko Okazaki.
Anno channels Kyoko Okazaki’s Helter Skelter throughout In Clothes Called Fat. Compare Noko from In Clothes Called Fat to Liliko from Helter Skelter – the two women are physically tortured, bent on becoming beautiful or maintaining a beauty that is central to the success they desire. Noko wants to escape her torment by becoming thin, while Liliko must maintain her beauty in order to control her destiny. The important difference between the two characters is the transcendance of Liliko at the end of Helter Skelter – she becomes a queen of the desert, elevated to godhood by her struggle. Noko is the opposite, returning to the state at which she started by the end of the book.
It would seem that the change in direction between the two books is dissimilar enough to challenge the mentor-mentee relationship of Okazaki and Anno. But Noko’s descent reflects another Okazaki protagonist, Yumi from the Okazaki classic Pink.
Yumi, a wild-hearted Bubble girl who is bored with her office job, turns to sex work to pay for the expensive luxury life she wants, and meat to feed her voracious crocodile. The arc of her downfall feels very similar to Noko’s – Noko’s change in body weight correlates roughly to Yumi’s lost independence as she becomes more and more reliant on Haru, her wanna-be author boyfriend. Neither transcends their personal struggle like Liliko – both are destined to cycle from extreme to extreme.
Along with their implied cyclical plots, Pink and In Clothes Called Fat use sex-work as a way to emphasize the destructive power of the male gaze. In Pink, Yumi is lectured by customers, disapproving men that are always willing to pay for her services. One “customer” ties Yumi up and robs her. The male voice as final judgement is also a key in Noko’s fetish sex work, where a customer calls her flesh “meat” and pays to keep her spa from helping her lose weight. It’s important to note that both Noko and Yumi rarely have control of their sexual encounters, where as in the case of Helter Skelter, Liliko is often if not always in control of herself as a sexual being.
Another theme that appears in both Pink and In Clothes Called Fat is the vindictive enforcer character; in Pink, Yumi’s stepmother manipulates Yumi through her lover Haru and viciously kills Yumi’s pet crocodile.Similarly, Mayumi slanders Noko and punishes Noko through a relationship with Saito, openly talking about the sex she has with Saito and burning him with cigarettes for Noko to see. Yumi’s stepmother and Mayumi are the agents of the male supremacy, policing the activities of Noko and Yumi, limiting their freedom and generating psychological stress.
In moments of fury, both Noko and Yumi lash out against their tormentors with physical violence. This is somewhat different than Helter Skelter where it could be argued that Liliko herself is the enforcer. The violence that Noko and Yumi commit against these enforcer characters is a way for them to both assert their independence, in a system that refuses to give them agency.
With In Clothes Called Fat, Anno has delivered a work that draws on two spectacular comics written by her mentor Okazaki. Anno has crafted a story that feels unique and focuses on the same societal issues Okazaki is keenly aware of. Despite the decades between each book and the stylistic differences between the three, Pink, Helter Skelter, and In Clothes Called Fat all are telling a remarkably similar story, and rally against the same societal problems.
The goal now is to finally listen.