O/A

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We’re on a mission from God to tell poop jokes.

O/A (O/A, オー・エー) is one of my absolute favorite manga of all time. It’s a manga by Watarai Keiji (渡会けいじ), the mangaka behind Boku ni Koisuru Mechanical, and it might have the worst title I have ever seen. Let me be clear: as a title of this series, contextually, O/A is a perfect title. It’s shorthand for “On Air” (usually written as “OA”), a term in radio and television to say a broadcast is live. It is also an abbreviation for “Operation Aurora”, a project/radio show that is the central focus of the manga. And it’s snappy! O/A — quick! But it’s also horrible. Nowadays, “O/A manga” will probably get you what you’re looking for, but just “O/A”? It’s simply two letters, it has no subtitle — when it was still being serialized, I could almost never find discussion on it because the title is so simple that looking for it will give you far too many unrelated results. That’s in fact still the case: searching archives or forums for “O/A”, even with “manga”, is nearly a lost cause. I almost suspect that’s part of the reason it wasn’t as popular as it could have been when it was still running/being translated. Man. I’ve always wanted to complain about this on record. Anyways…

O/A is a comedy/slice of life manga about the entertainment industry: specifically radio, idols, and comedians. Watarai-sensei’s sense of humor is largely absurd, but plenty of it is more on the “realistic” side here. Furthermore, although this technically qualifies as an “idol” manga, it’s one of the very few where the idols depicted are not heavily, well, idolized (or idealized). They’re people with problems and very human concerns (such as those involving using the toilet), and they’re not all smiles and wonder and regularly praising the glory of their industry/talking about DREAMS. The series is actually about a particularly ambitious and greedy idol who falls hard after a scandal that barely had anything to do with her, and her revival mainly through a radio show. The main gimmick of the series is that another person at the radio station (an amateur comedian) happens to have the same voice as her and through a series of shenanigans ends up working on her show. Her show thus sounds like one very eccentric girl talking to herself, often about very vulgar subject matter.

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That aside it takes a real hard look at keeping up with dreams and ambitions, and not in necessarily a hopeful way, but in a “trying to find a reason to keep it up” way. The series handles what drama there is in very thought-provoking ways. Furthermore, it presents one of the best friendships I’ve seen in fiction, and probably the best rivalry I’ve seen in fiction. And of course, it’s incredibly funny. I was a little worried when I reread this for review that maybe I wouldn’t like the jokes the second time around (it had been years since I last read it), but nope: there’s great stuff here. It’s unique humor, too, if only because manga rarely actually “goes there”. As I mentioned in my review for Boku ni Koisuru Mechanical, Watarai Keiji is one of my favorite mangaka because of strong art (cute and cool), writing (hilarious and intelligent), and likes that sync with my own likes (he’s a total westaboo (goddamn, one of those is a reference to fuckin’ Blade Runner)). O/A was the manga that earned him that respect from me. It’s an amazing work.

Horiuchi Yutaka is one of the top up-and-coming idols in Japan. She loves it.

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The manga starts with her beginning a new radio show. Idols do that a lot. Really, there’s nothing too special about them: the idol chats usually to a script, reads letters from her supporters, and does a few small events or quizzes — it’s a little bit of an extra thing for the fans. During her initial broadcast, things take a turn for the worst…in her stomach. She needs to use the bathroom ASAP.

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Yes they do. This wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.

But you can’t really do this on radio. O/A might teach you a lot about radio programming, or resonate with you if you’re way into it/actually involved in it. Things like “NO DEAD AIR (silence for too long)”, “you can only run a CM (commercial) for so long before it becomes a small controversy”, or “never stop a radio broadcast”. In this case, the latter two tenets are in effect because Yutaka’s bowels are in crisis and she isn’t going to remove herself from that bowl any time soon. Thankfully, one of the staff noticed earlier that a part-timer at the radio station sounds exactly like Horiuchi Yutaka. This girl, Tanaka Harumi, is quickly brought in to fill time until Yutaka returns. Unfortunately, nobody was aware that Harumi was a weird comedian with a talent and taste for off-the-cuff, crude humor.

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The broadcast ends shortly after this when Yutaka finishes up, rushes out the bathroom, and knees Harumi in the face.

Unfortunately for her, two things are involved that make it so this won’t be the last time Harumi will be impersonating her. For one, it’s suddenly revealed that the president of the production company she’s a part of was actually a total scumbag. He wound up in awful debt and fled the country, leaving all that debt in Yutaka’s name. Immediately, Yutaka’s reputation as an idol goes into the gutter, as rumors of her being scandalously involved with her president proliferate, and the debt weighs on her bank account. This brings us to the second thing: the producer of her radio show, Taki, is a devil for ratings, and the episode where Harumi took over absolutely dominated the airwaves and was received extremely well if only for how surprising and casual it was (absolutely unexpected for an idol’s radio show — those things are supposed to be cute not crass). Initially, before the scandal, Yutaka wants absolutely nothing to do with Harumi anymore and is pissed that the producer put someone else on the air in replacement of her, but Taki doesn’t back down.

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This speech, combined with personally meeting her fans at a handshaking event and hearing straight from their mouths how important that crazy first episode was to them (as a funny thing to get their minds off of daily stresses), starts to change Yutaka’s mind. Later after the scandal hits, the radio show becomes the only thing left for Yutaka that remains “pure”. Furthermore, she starts a strange relationship with Harumi…

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And while it might just seem silly and dumb now… Well, we’ll come back to that.

At any rate, all these factors in combination with a last ditch effort by Harumi to pick Yutaka up out of her scandal-induced funk by impersonating her on air again cause the fallen idol to rise up once more, with her radio show being the relaunching point of her entire career. She is determined to not let everything end with causes outside of her hands.

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And Harumi, as her fan and growing friend, will help her out. Thus, the new “two casters, one voice, one role” radio show “Operation Aurora” begins in earnest.

After this there isn’t exactly a “structure” to O/A, it’s instead mostly like a story — the story being that of Horiuchi Yutaka’s attempt to return to fame. It’s not only about that, though; it’s also about Yutaka trying to grow as a person. Although immensely talented and immensely confident, burning with ambition that few others can challenge, Yutaka is a severely flawed individual. As mentioned in an earlier page, she doesn’t have friends and never really has. Furthermore, she’s got quite a few personal demons, and the reasons she became an idol sometimes don’t feel legitimate to her. Although she has ambition, it’s an ambition born of efficiency, and she struggles to burn with passion rather than practicality.

Aside from that, Harumi’s story outlines that of an entertainer trying to even get their foot in the door, particularly when they suffer from something many comedians suffer from — stage fright. Her relationship with Yutaka becomes a little complicated because of it, as there aren’t many out there willing to go to the insane lengths Yutaka goes through to build their career, and as they become closer she finds herself comparing and contrasting their abilities and direction in a way you don’t really see a lot in stories. I won’t go into that in detail, but I’ll definitely talk more about Harumi and Yutaka’s (surprisingly not yuri) relationship.

After that, there’s a handful of other characters that get focused on throughout the series to examine different aspects of the entertainment industry, life and career direction due to circumstances beyond or within your control, or just humorous and absurd asides that are mostly there to make you laugh.

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Here’s one of those characters. She’s the best character in the whole manga, by the way.

Also among those characters is my favorite “rival character” ever: idol Kaieda Miho.

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Kaieda Miho debuted around the same time as Horiuchi Yutaka and seems at first to be THE most stereotypical rival ever; specifically a kind of ojou (rich girl) smug type of rival. She mocks Yutaka, she rubs her own success in Yutaka’s face, and she seems generally rude and even mean. However, I think it’s really obvious from the beginning that there’s something more to Kaieda Miho. Something cool about O/A is how every volume of this seven-volume series focuses on one thing in particular (be it a situation or a character) and looks into it extensively, wrapping up neatly with whatever the last chapter is. On that note, Kaieda Miho is the subject of volume 3 and SHE. KICKS. ASS. In a single volume, everything about her turns on its head and everything preceding changes in meaning. She also shows off an absolutely interesting story about becoming something and finding purpose, turning out to be incredibly motivating. In a single volume, Kaieda Miho became most readers’ favorite character, myself included. She’s immense. She basically, chapter after chapter, shows off a deep complexity, raw determination, beautiful and sweet admiration, and respectable grace. By the end of volume 3, I always looked forward to whenever she appeared. Her rivalry with Yutaka, who never really gave her the time of day, is powerfully moving, and she herself shows off an incredibly unique portrayal of a rival. She’s just awesome.

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When this song comes up, pay attention to the lyrics and the context of its placement in the chapter.

If you want a hint at a big part of the reason Kaieda Miho is wonderful, click [this]. Be aware: mild spoilers.

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Other than this standout stellar rivalry, O/A also features one of the best pairs of BFFs around.

It’s a subtle thing, but over time Harumi and Yutaka become closer and closer until they’re basically soulmates. Actually, soulmates implies something sexual, and although Harumi sometimes does some perverted stuff, that’s mainly for laughs and to get a rise out of Yutaka — neither of them are attracted to women. They undoubtedly become strongly bonded partners, though, and it’s one of the rare examples I’ve seen that I thought felt really genuine, going through ups and downs and general hardships, while also showing off the many lighthearted casual moments a pair of pals would end up having. There’s one page (that I won’t post) that really gets the feeling of their entire relationship across, but it’s late into the series and somewhat subtle so I think it’s better for it to sneak up on you. If you’re wondering which it is after reading, it’s a small scene on a bridge in volume 7.

That said, O/A is largely about healing. Yes, there’s poop jokes and pube jokes and absolutely ridiculous scenarios that come entirely out of left feel (so hard it’s practically a genre shift) but at the end of the day it’s about two friends who are ultimately weak becoming stronger thanks to one another’s help.

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And to my shock, there was really nothing romantic to it. Not even really legitimately teased. Best bros, best friends, through thick and thin. By the end of this manga, I actually cried. I’m tearing up just thinking about it right now! The “climax” of this manga is a genuinely beautiful scene with Yutaka and Harumi in their “fishbowl”, being absolutely heartfelt even though it’s also pretty funny.

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Also, as with any “based on a secret” manga, the fact that Horiuchi Yutaka’s radio show is voiced by two persons does get out in this manga. When it does, it’s handled in a way that impressed me because I really just plain wasn’t expecting it to go down like that. There’s a “usual” way these things go in fiction, and the way it goes here is absolutely not usual. It made me think, and I quite liked how it was built up rather than just being sudden.

Some more positives: Yutaka’s manager is a really great character and I really loved the detail that after all the controversy and scandal, she stayed with Yutaka throughout. There’s also some excellent use of side characters when interacting with bigger characters (for development, specifically), and Yutaka’s core issues that get worked on through the whole manga are different from that which is typical. The amount of information on radio also made me quite interested in it, and even if I’m not sure it was all authentic (how could I know?), it certainly seemed to be. What’s more, I find it amazing how much this manga talks about poop without actually saying the word poop. Lastly, I really enjoy that often after a serious moment in this series, something sudden, dumb, and funny happens.

That said, this manga isn’t perfect. For example, I think perhaps more could have been done with Harumi and her career, though it’s hard to criticize because this is really a manga about Horiuchi Yutaka. Also, in case it wasn’t clear: I highly recommend this work and think everyone should give it a read, but that said, the humor may test your absurdity threshold at times, and I’m not certain all the more serious messages it wants to telegraph will be received by readers well and positively. I obviously thought they all did: when this manga isn’t being funny, it’s being serious in ways I simply don’t see in most stories. And even when it’s being funny, it’s being funny in ways that manga aren’t often funny. But yeah, the absurdity can get really out there. There were a few chapters Watarai-sensei talks about in afterwords where he said the original drafts were nearly given a hard “NO” to the concepts themselves because things were so out there. I love it though. Like, there’s this one chapter that’s practically foreshadowed from the very first volume and goes ahead with Watarai-sensei’s love of the West and…no, no; I’ll say no more. It’s just executed really, really well. Chortles and tears level.

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So basically, O/A is pretty rad. O/A is why I’m always looking forward to more from Watarai Keiji. O/A is why I keep getting upset because Watarai Keiji’s manga keep ending too early (Boku ni Koisuru Mechanical really hurt — just when it was getting good). Like, this series really comes into its own more over time. It’s actually pretty noticeable that Watarai-sensei was not entirely sure about the direction of his manga from chapter 1, but worked with it and managed to make something that as a whole reads very cohesively and just gets better and better. It’s actually because of that, knowing he was kind of winging it, that I have a lot of faith he can make another really good manga (not only is he talented, but he has a supreme sense of style, interesting ideas, and his sense of humor is just fantastic). Mechanical was really getting there, and while I haven’t given Benten Rock You. a read yet I’m sure it’s probably very good as well. O/A was Watarai-sensei’s first fairly major success as a mangaka. It got a light novel, there was a radio drama, and I bet it might have become an anime (which may have been the ideal form of this series, given the focus on voices) but that sadly never came to pass. It’s almost like even O/A didn’t quite reach full potential. I’m still eager to see Watarai-sensei’s full capabilities, but make no mistake, so far O/A is definitely his best.

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And that’s my piece on O/A. I love the damn thing, and I hope you do too. If you do, or even if you just enjoy it, definitely consider purchasing the series. You may buy the bound volumes from Bookwalker (guide), honto (guide), or ebookjapan. Sadly it’s sold out on CDJapan, at least as of this writing. Here’s a link to volume 2 at least (sold out): [link]. Again, I highly recommend this work: it’s a bit of a treasure.

Next time I’ll be discussing a manga that I really, really, really hesitate to recommend. Well…we’ll talk more about it when we get there. Until then, thanks for reading.

Watarai Keiji’s Bookwalker author page: [link]

Watarai Keiji
Boku ni Koisuru Mechanical

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