Story & Art by Aki Irie
Edited by Daniel Joseph
Translated by David Musto
Produced by Grace Lu & Tomoe Tsutsumi
The opening pages of this volume perfectly encapsulate Aki Irie’s unbridled love for the landscapes of Iceland. She opens by depicting the long winding road crossing through the hills, devoting panels to pointing out the sky, the snowy mountains, the farm-houses, and even the interior of the car and the cool draft wafting in. These are ostensibly mundane details, trivialities most would take for granted. After all, there’s technically not a whole lot of landmarks or sights to see. Yet, Aki Irie finds beauty in this nothingness. She devotes pages to evoke the sensation of living in this moment, soaking up the setting, immersing the reader in this world. It’s ironic when Kei muses that the gas station he comes across is an “oasis,” because if anything it’s an interruption of a perfect moment of tranquility in which Kei was able to have the natural beauty surrounding him all to himself.
If you somehow haven’t figured it out yet after four volumes, Go With the Clouds is basically Aki Irie’s travelogue of Iceland. It’s an excuse for her to draw the different sights of Iceland and gush about everything that’s cool about the country. One chapter event takes a detour from the plot to have the character visit Laki, allowing Irie to draw a beautiful two-page spread of glacier water forming a river across the Icelandic plains, and pages of a sturdy van driving across the flooded lands. Kei’s awe is clearly meant to stoke similar feelings of wonder in the reader, and truly, Irie’s immaculate rendering of the water across the landscape is genuinely awe-inspiring. It can’t be understated just how much Irie’s gorgeous style evokes so much majesty and magic in these environments. Whether they’re snowy, hilly, grassy, or rocky, any depiction of the Icelandic outdoors spins the seeming simplicity of the setting into a transcendently stunning sight. The details are deceptively sparse, with just short strokes and lines peppered like dots around chunks of white space, but the full picture Irie creates is so vivid it makes you feel like you’re really there, living in the moment.
Of course, Irie doesn’t just concentrate all her artistic attention on the outdoors. Her interior environments are similarly immaculate, a particular highlight being a cover page showing Lilja inside a supermarket, surrounded by meticulously detailed shelves. Her character designs are majestic too. There’s an almost otherworldly quality to her long, wispy hairstyles, particularly when she draws bangs covering a character’s shining eyes and bold, long eyelashes. So much of Irie’s distinctive style and the expressiveness therein relies on communicating everything about a character through their eyes. She literally depicts her characters sparkling during moments of wonder, like when Lilja is enamored by the pudding doll Kei gifts her. Irie blends her vivacious characters with her tangible worlds to create eye-popping art keeping readers glued to every page.
Irie’s enchanting art should help keep readers engaged through the story’s many distractions and detours. Go With the Clouds is an oddly unfocused series, almost a stream-of-consciousness jumble of ideas and stories Irie chooses to explore whenever she wants to in whatever order she feels like. The overarching story revolving around Kei’s brother Michitaka is picked up and dropped at sudden intervals, making it hard to gauge what it’s leading towards. While there’s definite attention paid to developing the mystery surrounding the misbegotten youth and other character relationships, it’s clearly not Irie’s focus. Go With the Clouds is definitely a comic in which the story serves the art, giving Irie an excuse to depict different things she likes, rather than the draw itself.
Still, this volume does develop the Michitaka storyline in some intriguing and important respects. Of particular note is a chapter involving a detective investigating Michitaka’s past, the revelations putting his character into perspective. Michitaka is a two-faced manipulator who shows different sides of himself to people depending on how much he likes them and wants their approval. He feigns naivety and uses his beautiful looks to prey on the sympathy of others, making them do as he pleases. His possessive clinginess seems derived from some sort of abandonment complex, violently retaliating against those he believes would abandon him. He desires the attention of his brother above all else, childishly refusing to eat meals unless he cooks them, and traveling half-way across the world to find him. For those who really know him, Michitaka is seen as nothing but a dangerous murderer who must be stopped. However, there seems to be some level of introspection on his part. Left alone on a cottage in the countryside, he realizes animals instinctively don’t want anything to do with him, running away or squawking at him in anger. Recognizing the discomfort he’s causing, and irritated he’s not receiving the unconditional acceptance he longs for, he disappears. The implications of this decision and the destination of his character arc remain unclear; either Michitaka has isolated himself out of atonement or he’s simply moved elsewhere to double-down on his entitlement. Regardless, he’s an unsettlingly unstable antagonist, and an interesting force of chaos simmering in the background of the series, never knowing when it’ll boil over.
That said, the throughline of this particular volume is definitely the budding affections between Kei and Lilja. In many respects they have a typical tsundere relationship, regularly antagonizing each other but being tender with each other’s feelings during emotionally vulnerable moments. Lilja is a particularly soothing source of comfort when Kei’s distraught over Michitaka’s disappearance, gently singing him a lullaby and coaxing him into crying out his frustrations. Meanwhile, Kei brings out the normally poised Lilja’s more childish side, capable of eliciting a warm smile from the cold-hearted girl. Both teens are fairly stern and emotionally guarded, but because they’re so similar, they’re able to provoke each other into being authentic and vulnerable with their feelings. While the romance isn’t the book’s greatest strength, it still provides a solid foundation of heart and a propulsive source of character development in the story.
Unfortunately, their relationship also begets some unwelcome scenes of sexual harassment. The first two chapters of the volume essentially focus on Kei and Lilja antagonizing each other while on their morning runs. While racing against Lilja, Kei starts ogling her ass, intentionally running behind her to “enjoy the view.” The subsequent chapter straight-up features both of them groping each other’s asses in acts of sexual assault played for laughs. These moments aren’t equal-opportunity either; there are many panels devoted to Lilja’s ass, and Kei’s hands digging into her ass. Kei also gropes Lilja’s boobs later on in the book, remarking afterward he barely felt anything in a tedious “woman has small boobs” joke that ends up becoming a plot point. These moments are particularly irritating because these characters are teenagers, and while it’s not out of character for teenagers to behave this way, these scenes are ultimately superfluous and unneeded bits of fanservice and comedy. While I’ve seen far worse scenes of this sort in manga, that doesn’t make these scenes any less uncomfortable.
Go With the Clouds continues to go with the flow, and there’s nothing else quite like it. This volume starts in one place and ends somewhere completely different, and the direction of the series remains as nebulous as ever. As frustrating as its narrative aimlessness can be, Aki Irie’s ethereal art never ceases to mystify. This series is her tribute to everything awesome about Iceland, and honestly, it’s a convincingly good travelogue. I could stay lost in Aki Irie’s mesmerizingly beautiful drawings of Icelandic landscapes forever, and eagerly look forward to my next visit to this world through her loving eyes.