Story & Art by Makoto Hagino
Translation & Adaptation by John Werry
Touch-Up & Lettering by Eve Grandt
Design by Yukiko Whitley
Edited by Pancha Diaz
A Tropical Fish’s theme is perfectly visualized right on its first regular page. The first panel shows us Konatsu’s perspective looking out the window, seeing nothing but a vast, barren sea that stretches off endlessly into the distance. A line of sound effects – the relentless “klata klata” clanging of the train – is the only noise that connects the two lonely panels above and beneath it.
We see Konatsu aboard the train in the second panel, sitting alone in an empty train. The panel’s framing emphasizes its emptiness. Konatsu sits closest to the front, in the bottom-left side – the first thing our eye is drawn to reading the panel left to right. As such, when our eyes center to the back door of the train, its depth and the impact of how sparsely populated it is exaggerated. This interior looks so much bigger than the space occupied by Konatsu, and hence feels so much emptier. The melancholic mood is punctuated by the dark shadows that color the interior, and Konatsu herself.
There is sunlight peeking into the train on its right – with white squares of sunlight highlighting the chairs and floor. There is an elderly woman, too, who rather than being shadowed like Koyuki is highlighted by the sunlight, sitting peacefully and contentedly. Konatsu isn’t looking at her, or at anything in front of her. She’s looking back, behind her shoulder. Watching the never-ending scenery of the seas, dwelling in its nothingness. A thought highlighted by her saying she’s “said goodbye to everything,” implying that she feels she has nothing as she enters her new, unfamiliar surroundings. These panels instantly describe the feelings of isolation, alienation, and loneliness that permeates the rest of the book, and both our protagonists struggle with in their own way.
A Tropical Fish Yearns For Snow is a veritable “fish out of water” story, but in two respects. The direct idiomatic similarity is Konatsu adjusting to unfamiliar surroundings that she feels out of place in. Another, more thematic application, is describing how both Koyuki and Konatsu respond to situations and feelings that they’ve never experienced before and are uncomfortable confronting. Both characters are compared to the clouded salamander in the club; a shy animal that is seldom seen, and needs prodding to come out. The characteristics of the salamander are used in conjunction with the themes of the story “Salamander” by Masuji Ibuse, in which a salamander traps a frog with him for company, sighing that “the colder it gets, the lonelier I feel.” Konatsu resembles the physical characteristics of the salamander in terms of being new to her surroundings and shy about making friends and interacting with people. Koyuki, meanwhile, reflects the themes of the “Salamander” story. Ibuse’s salamander can’t leave its cave, so it must keep its companion trapped there with it. Koyuki’s cave is both the physical space of the aquarium club and the untouchable reputation that imprisons her; other people’s perceptions of her prevent them from getting to truly know her, so in spite of her popularity, she’s isolated and lonely. Both characters help each other by being safe confidants to one another, allowing them to express their honest feelings.
A salamander frequently appears on Koyuki’s shoulder during moments where she feels particularly isolated; that it is only noticed by Konatsu speaks to her perceptiveness and ability to empathize with Koyuki. As someone who’s forced themselves to put on a happy face and say she’s fine even when she’s not, Konatsu is the only person who relates to Koyuki, seeing how she hides her pain and loneliness. She intentionally decides to become the frog to her salamander. In the motif of “the colder it gets, the lonelier I feel,” the message seems to be that Koyuki desperately desires the warmth of companionship to melt her frozen feelings.
Appropriately, “Koyuki” means “snow child” and “Konatsu” means “summer child,” which is where the “A Tropical Fish Yearns For Snow” title comes from. Literally, the title implies Konatsu pining for Koyuki’s affections, but both characters yearn for what they see in the other. Konatsu admires Koyuki’s capableness, and Koyuki is smitten with Konatsu’s outgoingness. The chapter titles switch between describing Konatsu and Koyuki’s feelings, and the story shifts between these perspectives frequently as well. Their companionship provides them experiences they wouldn’t normally have otherwise, helping them transform their surroundings and grow emotionally.
Appreciably, the audience is immediately privy to the interior feelings of both characters in the relationship. Subverting the cool, mysterious senpai trope in other stories, Tropical Fish very quickly lets us see that Koyuki is just as insecure and awkward as Konatsu. In fact, in a great reversal of typical kohai-senpai relationship dynamics, Koyuki’s the one who gets embarrassed by things like “indirect kisses” and daydreams about spending time with her. A cool third wheel that also challenges and exposes Koyuki’s vulnerabilities is Konatsu’s cheerful and unflappably friendly classmate Hirose. Her unflinching sociability makes Koyuki insecure and concerned that there’s no room for her when Konatsu and Hirose are together. Through this balance of perspectives and vulnerable moments for both characters, the series charmingly explores the ways in which our interactions characterize our perceptions. Both Koyuki and Konatsu think the other is amazing and perfect in everything they do, but as readers, we see that both characters have bouts of self-doubt and worry about what the other person will think of them. Their feelings are easy to understand and empathize with, and it feels rewarding to see how they influence each other and help one another be a little more confident and a little less lonely.
Tropical Fish also stands out for its unique aquarium club setting and the metaphors it is able to wring out of this motif. Aquarium school clubs aren’t as uncommon as you might think in the U.S., but are much rarer in Japan. Hagino specifically based the one depicted in this series off of the one at Ehime Prefectural Nagahama High School, and it’s noted that the layout of the club seen in the opening pages was drawn to accurately resemble Nagahama’s. The setting allows for marine life motifs and imagery, showing both characters personifying animals and the world around them when exploring their feelings. For instance, Konatsu imagines being surrounded by aquatic life after Koyuki shares her first name, and Koyuki works through her fears of giving Konatsu an embarrassing first impression of her by talking to her Tiger Shark. Flourishes like these provide Tropical Fish some situational advantages in telling its story, like having an “indirect kiss” scene involving sucking an aquarium tube you’re unlikely to find in similar manga. These distinct charms help the story float above its more convention high-school love story trappings, feeling like a refreshing take on the well-trodden schoolgirl yuri romance.
Tropical Fish’s first volume ends with a pivotal exchange of feelings between Koyuki and Konatsu. Koyuki’s face literally lights up when Konatsu tells her that her salamander, also named Koyuki, has shown its face. The blacks in her hair turn white from amazement, as if basking in the glow emanating from Konatsu. When Konatsu becomes embarrassed by her outburst, Koyuki’s face becomes shadowed, signifying feelings of disappointment and uncertainty. This prompts her impulsive hug, spurred on by suppressed feelings towards Konatsu, needing to feel the comfort she gives her. Tropical Fish succeeds in illustrating not only the melancholic loneliness of isolation, but also the warmth and joy of being with someone you love. From here, it will be interesting to see how Koyuki and Konatsu explore their feelings for each other and break down more of their emotional walls. There are more sides to people and places than there appear to be on the surface, and I hope these girls will be able to dive into those possibilities together. Sometimes, a change of scenery, a new experience, or another person is just what we need to help us leave our little caves and explore the world beyond.