The story of the bullied, closeted gay high-schooler in a small town is a clichéd (but relevant) one in American media, and yet seeing this brand of narrative in the context of BL is refreshing. BL is considered to be the sphere of fantasy. Much of it is character-driven and chooses to place less emphasis on plot and setting, placing the main couple into a bubble. Nagai Saburou’s Smells Like Green Spirit is unique in that it explores both the characters’ impact on their environment, and how the small town and its inhabitants have molded the characters and their decisions.
Some of the characters and
scenarios feel familiar at face value: the beautiful boy, the aggressively closeted teen feigning homophobia. However, the attention given to their presentation allows them to feel realistic rather than worn-out.
Facial expressions are Nagai Saburou’s strong suit and serve to set the mood of the narrative. Manic laughter, comically absurd faces that might be more suited to a gag manga, the poignant holding back of tears, blushing young love, and eerie smiles that slowly dig a pit of dread in one’s stomach: all are illustrated with equal effectiveness. The animated expressions breathe life into everyone from the troubled antagonists to the gossiping aunties of the town. The overlapping and shifting of emotions lends to an element of the unexpected that keeps the story engaging.
At its heart, this story is about love. Rather than the oft-glorified romantic love, it places equal if not more importance on friendship, familial love, self-acceptance, and the ways in which they conflict. Will placing your own happiness over that of your loved ones ultimately make you happy? To what lengths should you go to hide your true self to fit in and live life in a way that society dictates, and who will be hurt by this? What values should be prioritized and what sacrifices are necessary to have a life that you’re satisfied with? The main characters wrestle through the process of discovering their personal answers to these questions, while other characters suffer from the consequences of past choices.
This manga presents the different ways in which those who don’t conform can be themselves and exist in an environment that isn’t always accepting of them. It’s an amalgamation of humor, intense discomfort, romance, fear of the unknown, the joy of newfound friendship, and a bittersweet coming-of-age story. By drawing parallels between and contrasting the lives of the various inhabitants of one small town, Smells Like Green Spirit shows that navigating the convoluted branches of the journey of life doesn’t always turn out the way you expect or desire. But maybe there isn’t just one answer to finding your place in the world.