Story & Art by Isaki Uta
Translated by Ed Ayes
Lettered by Tim Sun
Compiled and Formatted by CC Su & Katarina Kunstelj
Quality Assurance by Zhuchka & On Takahashi
Isaki Uta’s debut work Leaper shows that they’ve always been interested in exploring the ephemerality of relationships and the eternity of love through their stories. Leaper imagines a world in which people born on Leap Day mentally and physically develop at a rate four times slower than the average person. While there’s a valuable conversation to be had about how well the story depicts children with developmental disabilities being neglected and left behind by the education system, I feel that’s beyond my expertise to accurately comment on. Moreover, the story’s more focused on its protagonist Mio’s struggle to form and maintain lasting relationships with other people. The story follows Mio’s desperation to grow up faster than time allows, scared of being abandoned and forgotten by the people she loves. Ultimately, she realizes that while the people in her life may come and part, the memories she’s made with them will always be with her; their love lives eternally in her heart.
I’ve found Uta’s stories generally share two thematic prongs you can fork apart; exploring being displaced as an outcast, and grappling with fleeting relationships. For instance, Uta’s Mine-kun is Asexual examines the lonely feelings that can develop from incompatible physical needs in a relationship, and the lingering impact a short-lived but meaningful relationship reverberates long afterward. Similarly, in Leaper, Mio’s ostracized and bullied for maturing slowly, and the friendships she does make are doomed to be short-lived. She learns and grows at a much slower pace than everyone else, so by the time she takes the next step her classmates have all run far ahead. Everyone she cares about inevitably leaves her behind, leading to situations like her kindergarten bestie, Yo, becoming her teacher in middle school. As such, she perceives time and interacts with people unlike anyone else. She contemplates this while trying to reconcile her image of the boy she knew with the man now teaching her. The experience of floundering through a prolonged childhood while your friends grow up to the point they’re unrecognizable is not something her non-Leaper classmates can ever truly understand.
Humans rely on measurements of time and regular milestones in their life to keep track of their progress and growth, but by virtue of being a Leaper, Mio is alienated from that experience. Time works differently for her and her classmates; from their point of view she lives life in slow-motion, but from hers they’re living theirs in fast-forward. That difference in lived experience and perception is the barrier between Mio and retaining long-lasting friendships. However, while Mio may be different she’s not the only Leaper in the world. There are others like her, minorities as they may be. This is where the story is really effective as a metaphor, because while Mio’s circumstances are fantastical, her sense of displacement reflects the general experience of living as a minority. You have different lived experiences because of your circumstances, but your peers in the majority, unable to relate, dismiss the normalcy of those experiences. As such, the alienated individual starts to stress over if something’s wrong with them. They feel like they’re burdening everyone with their problems, self-isolating out of guilt; tragically, feeling alone becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Uta explored this angle in Mine-kun is Asexual, showing the titular Mine push his girlfriend away, fearing he’s an inadequate partner after overhearing her lamentin their lack of physical intimacy. Much like Mine-kun, Leaper explores these same feelings of emotional isolation; the frustration of having different needs other people can’t relate to, and the pain of not being understood.
That said, Uta doesn’t let their protagonists give up on their happiness, and this is not a tragic story. While Mio’s circumstances beget their own challenges and heartbreak, but also their own joys and rewards. For instance, while her mother begrudges the challenge of changing her diapers for four years, she also appreciates getting to spend more time with her daughter as a little girl. Similarly, it allows Mio more opportunities to meet more people. While she laments losing her friends when they graduate before her, she always finds someone in every phase of her life who’ll be her steadfast friend and companion for as long as they know her. Just because they enter new, diverging phases in life doesn’t mean those relationships were tragically short-lived. In fact, the fleeting nature of those friendships is precisely what made them so precious and important for Mio, and why she’ll treasure and carry those memories with her throughout her life. Precisely because she ages slowly, Mio has more opportunities to experience things that people who age normally wouldn’t get to. While her loved ones may pass before her, she’ll remember them longer than anyone else, and carry their dreams with her to a future only she can see manifest. Mio ultimately embraces her unique gifts, her bittersweet memories recontextualized as a source of strength as she embarks forward on the path of life, forged into a resolve to make proud all those who’ve loved and helped her along the way.
As always, team Irodori’s localization work is immaculate. This doujinshi was Uta’s debut work, so there’s a rawness to the art that differs more from their more recent fare. Tim Sun’s lettering flawlessly reflects that roughness, recreating Uta’s original sound effects with equivalents that balance clarity with messiness. For dialogue and narration text, Sun’s lettering is modern, using standard fonts that complement the work. However, where Sun’s work really shines is through their hand-lettered sound effects. These sound effects are an essential aesthetic garnish to Uta’s art, as demonstrated in the comic’s very first panel. The violent, erratic “AAAH!!!” screamed by Kayoko wrap around the maternity clinic and the Doctor’s word balloon, paired with her own jagged-edged word balloon filled with big bold text in a different font from the other speaking characters on the page. These lettering choices characterize what’s going on, literally showing how her distress is going over their heads as they deflect her pleas with their own reassurances. So much information is given to readers just through the appearance and placement of the text on the art, without even seeing the actual characters!
Sun’s meticulous hand-lettering is evident throughout the comic, employing noticeably uneven renderings of typographic styles. Each letter is clearly individually drawn rather than reused, often looking janky and unevenly laid out. For instance, there’re sound effects that are scrunched together or crammed around characters as if the artist didn’t precisely map out their placement. This is clearly intentional; after all, Irodori always works with the original artists when creating their localized versions, so the way these sound effects are drawn has been approved by Uta themselves. As Uta’s debut work, there’s bound to be a little messiness, and that roughness is an essential part of the comic’s charm and appeal. It’s hard to replicate something so uniquely singular as a person’s handwriting, particularly if they’re messy, and especially if they’re experimenting with many different visual effects. Sun’s ability to recreate the uniqueness of Uta’s original lettering is marvelous, complimenting the fledgling, hand-drawn aesthetic of the comic and preserving so much of its character.
While it may at times evoke the aesthetic of crudeness, make no mistake, Leaper is a remarkably polished comic with an imaginative artistic ethos. Uta’s character designs are vivaciously drafted, their anatomy or form never once looking off. What’s especially impressive is Uta’s looseness; they’ll often employ super-deformed techniques, simplifying the characters into doodles, but their gestures are always impactful and evocative. The page where Mio grieves over Yo leaving kindergarten and running off distraught is a wonderful encapsulation of Uta’s artistic range, artfully playing with the stylistic depictions of her characters to juxtapose potent sadness with silly comedy. The scene also smartly uses carefully strewn silhouettes and angles to create an oppressive environment without overcrowding panels with detail, effectively depicting how overwhelmed Mio is in her surroundings, and how the loneliness she feels makes everything around her feel like an empty void, bereft of anything but vague shadows.
Uta employs a few particular stylistic tricks and motifs that embellish the story’s themes through the art. Uta’s greatest skill is using shapes and silhouettes to represent something without drawing it in detail. The manga’s very first panel employs this, using the blotches of white against the black ink background to effectively indicate a city in the distance without the actual form of the buildings being drawn. This trick is also used throughout the comic to carve out the forms of bushes, trees, and even other buildings; it’s a masterclass in gorgeous minimalism.
That said, Uta still draws stunningly detailed illustrative moments too. In fact, their attention to detail is one of their greatest skills as an artist. My favorite motif they employ involves the flowers accompanying Mio during different phases of her life. The story can be broken down in terms of three distinct phases of her life; kindergarten, elementary school, and middle school. Uta reintroduces Mio at the start of each of these transitions with a full-body shot, to indicate how much she’s grown. More subtle, however, are the drawings of the flowers in the background accompanying each introduction. Much like Mio herself, the flowers grow alongside her; they start off as sprouts when she’s a kindergartener, bud when she’s in elementary school, and fully bloom into flowers when she’s in middle school. Uta’s renderings of flowers not only make for stunning compositions, but they’re also a clever visual metaphor accompanying and reflecting Mio’s growth. Leaper’s filled to the brim with stunning illustrations like these. Be it the beautiful visual of all the hands of people Mio’s encountered touching hers, literally representing how they’ve touched her life, or the choice to black out Yo’s text when Mio imagines his younger self excited at seeing earth from space, reflecting how she’s likely forgotten what he’d say or sounds like, Uta puts so much heart and thought into their visual storytelling.
Leaper is a compelling, emotional artistic statement from an artist that began their career with a fully formed ethos they’ve only refined over time. Mio’s story is one of bittersweet encounters, a welcome reminder to treasure those you’ve loved and keep your memories of them close to your heart. Irodori’s localization is poetically written, expressively lettered, and lovingly polished. Uta’s hard on their art and the quality of the work in their afterward, but I respectfully couldn’t disagree more. It’s a gorgeously drawn story with a fascinating premise, sharing a compelling message that’s aged beautifully. Leap at the chance to read it; Leaper stands the test of time.
Disclaimer: This review was made possible through a complimentary review copy provided by Irodori.
You can purchase Leaper and learn more about Irodori here.