The following review contains light spoilers for My Alcoholic Escape From Reality by Kabi Nagata, now available in English from Seven Seas Entertainment.
My Alcoholic Escape From Reality, the latest autobiographical manga by Nagata Kabi, depicts Nagata’s year-long descent into alcohol abuse with messy and breathtaking honesty. The story is relatively simple, picking up after the successful release of her previous memoir, My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness. In it, Nagata struggles to write a work of fiction, and as she labors away at this task, she finds herself drinking more and more. Before she knows it, she’s afflicted with terrible abdominal pains and finds herself in the hospital for pancreatitis.
Nagata depicts these events in a humorous way, but her condition is clearly no joke. In one memorable moment, the doctor tells her that if she doesn’t stick to her strict new diet (which includes no fatty foods or alcohol), she will wind up more or less completely incapacitated for the rest of her life, unable to properly eat or digest anything at all. What’s more, this isn’t a temporary thing -- she has to stick to this diet for the rest of her life and remain on medication for the duration as well.
Nagata writes with constant, almost masochistic honesty. Though she’s mostly endearing, Nagata also doesn’t shy away from depicting her own deeply unflattering behavior. This is very much a “warts and all” style of writing, and this unflattering portrayal gives the reader a sense of trust, a sense that she’s being completely honest about herself and her own experience.
This radical honesty manifests in the other main conflict of the manga -- Nagata's desire to move away from autobiographical content. She goes into how her previous memoirs hurt and embarrassed her parents, and how much she wants to move away from that. Since My Alcoholic Escape From Reality is, in fact, an autobiographical manga, it’s clear what she ultimately decided to do, but throughout the events depicted in the manga, Nagata is dead set on moving into fiction.
This preoccupation with manga, bother Nagata’s own work and the greater art form, completely saturates the story. Nagata frequently intercuts her own experience by relating to previous manga. She relates her IV drip to the famous avant-garde manga Screw Style and associates her inability to leave alcohol behind with the protagonist of the very first boy’s love manga, Kaze to Ki no Uta. “Don’t make me stay sober!” is the rallying cry for its protagonist, and very much for Nagata.
Nagata’s style is somewhat different from a lot of popular manga. Internationally, it seems safe to say that shonen manga is the most popular genre, and if you come in expecting that type of presentation, photorealistic backgrounds, etc, you will be disappointed. But Nagata’s drawings have a quick, expressionistic quality that always accentuates her emotions or feelings at any given point in the story.
She tends to zoom in on moments of intense emotional distress, devoting an entire splash page to her downcast face in the midst of her despair. She also makes light of her physical ailments, depicting nausea, pain and fever as cute cartoon caricatures. It’s very well done.
Ultimately, this manga is really about Nagata’s struggles with herself. She struggles against her desire to drink, she struggles against her desire to create autobiographical art, she struggles with her failing health.
In the end, there are no clear resolutions. As Nagata says in the manga, her last work took her whole life to create; for this one, she had around a year. Nagata has an illness that she’ll have to deal with for the rest of her life, and there’s no way to know if it will end well. Indeed, the end of My Alcoholic Escape From Reality feels much like an all-caps "TO BE CONTINUED." The same could be said for a snapshot of any year, for any of us.