Change is a vital part of any successful webcomic, and yet it can also be a hazardous aspect to the comic as well. Without change, a comic risks becoming static and unimaginative, which is a common failing with a number of newspaper comics. Yet if cartoonists changes too much, they risk alienating a fanbase who may love specific aspects of the comic. With today’s Red String, the final piece of a domino chain reaction has fallen, and the comic has broken away from a fundamental part of its foundation. In doing so, I believe the comic has perhaps grown stronger as a result.
One of the keystones of Gina Biggs’ web-manga is the relationship between the comic’s primary protagonist, Miharu, and the young man whom she was in an arranged marriage to, Kazuo. There were some early conflicts that focused on Miharu’s own uncertainty over the relationship, as well as an attempt by her cousin Karen to break Miharu and Kazuo up. But for years, the relationship seemed quite stable, and was the one fairly unchanging element in a comic full of personal conflicts. Yet there was one fundamental flaw with their relationship, and that lay with Kazuo’s own passivity.
When the comic first began, Kazuo admitted to Miharu that it didn’t matter what he wanted to do with his life because he had no choice. He would have to join the family business as he was the only son. Likewise, he never questioned being in an arranged marriage with Miharu… and when his father later demanded Kazuo break off his relationship with Miharu, Kazuo put up only token resistance. One slap and the threat of violence was more than enough to cow Kazuo. Coming on the heels of he and Miharu having had sex for the first time and Kazuo vowing never to let her go… and Kazuo was left looking particularly spineless.
His actions the next day, in turning something Miharu said around and using it as the “reason” for dumping her, showed that Kazuo was not only spineless but also a complete and utter coward. It would not be until several attempts at reconciliation on Miharu’s behalf and the intervention of a former romantic rival of Kazuo before the truth even came out. The few times Kazuo remotely considered resisting his “fate” as deemed by his authoritarian father, he immediately repressed those hopes and returned to a state of angst and woe that left me wondering when he was going to start dressing in black leathers and putting on black mascara.
The thing is, Biggs has remained true to Kazuo’s character. His inability to stand up for himself or to seek his own destiny, his tendency to just go with the flow… these are integral parts of Kazuo that only in hindsight (and with Miharu’s tears after that first gutless breakup) are revealed to be weaknesses. I’m particularly amused by how Kazuo’s childhood friend Kikuko described Kazuo to Miharu after warning her of the attempt to marry Kazuo off to Kikuko: “I used to think Kazuo was cool… but it turns out he’s pretty pathetic.” That is an apt description, and suggests that Kazuo has never outgrown the little boy who was so terrified of his father when growing older.
Today’s comic, with Miharu removing the red string she had tied around her neck to symbolize her commitment to Kazuo, is an interesting contrast to Kazuo’s own severing of the red string. His was a callous and unfeeling move meant to shock and drive Miharu away, and to avoid a longer confrontation where he’d have to treat her with respect and dignity while explaining what was wrong. Hers is a private moment, and one full of maturity. The final straw for Miharu was learning that Kazuo does still love her… but is unwilling to fight for that love. So she is moving on. But even as she states she’s moving on from her relationship with Kazuo, she is not foresaking him. She intends to help him learn to stand on his own two feet, and find his inner strength.
Miharu removing the red string symbolizes not only her desire to move on, but on putting childish things behind her (which may seem at odds with her bleaching her hair once again, though I see her bleaching her hair as a refusal to hide and to once again be truly herself). In many ways, her arranged marriage to Kazuo was a child-like thing, created by her parents and Kazuo’s mother a decade earlier, and meant to not only protect Kazuo but to also provide a measure of protection to Miharu herself. By stepping away from the arranged marriage (sundered as it may be), Miharu is stepping away from the protections of her parents and taking her first steps as a young woman, rather than a teenaged girl. Thus breaking the red string may also symbolize a break from Miharu’s childhood.
She has also shown considerable maturity in her desire to help Kazuo. Her inner musings don’t suggest it’s an attempt to try and win Kazuo back. That boat has sailed, and Kazuo was left at the dock, walking in the other direction. Nor is this decision to help Kazuo find his own strength something from out of the blue, as she has voiced her opinion on it before. The ironic thing is that the very passivity and spinelessness that paralyze Kazuo and leave him unable to resist his father may thus work in her benefit, allowing her to start building the foundation from which Kazuo himself can escape from his own repressive childhood and become his own person.
As for the relationship between Miharu and Kazuo, which has long been a cornerstone of the comic, it lies shattered under the weight of unrealistic expectations and outside pressures. That is not to say that things won’t change in the future; if Miharu is able to force Kazuo to grow up and take charge of his life, if Kazuo can find the inner strength to stand up to his father and find his own path, and if the red string of fate does truly bind them, then perhaps Miharu and Kazuo will find themselves together again. It would be a relationship built on something far stronger than the desires of parents and a childish attraction. It would be a joining of two possible equals. Yet I must admit I would rather see in that distant future for Miharu to smile at Kazuo’s offer and with quiet dignity turn him down and walk away on her own two feet. Because while the comic may be called Red String, I believe this young woman is bound by no fate but that of her own choosing.