The mournful lyrics to Siúil a Rún, an Irish folk song about the loss of a loved one, translate to “go, my love.” Those same lyrics appear as the subtitle to Nagabe’s dark manga series THE GIRL FROM THE OTHER SIDE. Addressing themes of betrayal, death, and the loss of innocence, Siúil a Rún echoes the major themes in Nagabe’s work.
The series from Seven Seas Entertainment tells the story of a young girl, Shiva, after she is abandoned by her caretakers who believe she is the victim of a horrible curse. “Teacher,” a cursed “Outsider,” rescues Shiva and fills the role of doting parent. Nagabe’s artwork balances an Edward Gorey or Tim Burton edginess with a tender optimism. Indeed, some aspects of Teacher’s character design resemble Gorey’s Doubtful Guest, with his beleaguered look and mysterious origins. But despite his menacing skull face, tail, and large horns, he is as gentle as Miyazaki’s Totoro, who quietly watches after his world.
Despite her inauspicious beginning, Shiva embodies innocence and joy. The child’s relationship with her teacher is an intense study of psychological trauma, innocence, and pensive existentialism. The fixation on Insiders and Outsiders emphasizes Teacher and Shiva’s desire to build a home in the middle. However, Nagabe matches the dark context with gentle playfulness and moments of tranquility. As a result, the series points out that Shiva’s love and ability to live in the moment are the only cure for the adults’ fixation on death and suffering.
Inside, Outside, and In-Between
THE GIRL FROM THE OTHER SIDE structures its major themes in terms of opposing ideas. The binaries of life and death, happiness and sorrow, young and old, innocence and knowledge, are supported structurally by the narrative’s premise. Namely, that there is a safe, civilized, and happy interior world and a dangerous, corrupt, and sad exterior. Ultimately, however, readers experience the world through Shiva’s perspective. Shiva expresses curiosity in both the Outside and Inside realm and traverses the two areas without concern.
THE GIRL FROM THE OTHER SIDE’s inside/outside dynamic mimics a complex feature of Japanese culture and linguistics, Uchi-Soto. Uchi, meaning “inside,” refers to the in-group, while soto, “outside,” describes out-groups. Uchi-Soto describes the shifting boundaries between groups that play a key role in determining respect and politeness in Japanese society. Shiva is curious, but ultimately respectful of both cultures, as is Teacher. However, when the Inside and Outside worlds clash, Shiva and Teacher are caught in the middle.
Indeed, the Insiders maintain their world’s strict boundaries. The humans with whom Shiva makes contact wish to keep the system clearly defined. Luckily, Teacher, who is both an outsider and a foreigner, is there to serve as her chaperone between worlds.
Teacher’s position as a foreigner is a unique feature of the story. He is not quite a member of the society of haunted Outsiders. Nevertheless, because of the curse, he is still not quite an Insider. Additionally, his speech patterns are slightly different from Shiva and her Auntie’s (who appears later in the series). Nevertheless, Shiva loves and respects Teacher. Together, the two dwell at the border between the Insider’s world and the Outsider’s world. Symbolically, they also bridge the gap between life and death, innocence and knowledge, and good and evil.
The Grim Teacher? Knowledge and Death
Teacher is a domineering figure. The dark illustrations highlight his bright expressive eyes. Teacher’s curse causes his physical deformities and robs him of his ability to taste, smell, and feel. Nagabe’s art often positions Teacher trailing behind Shiva. Most often Teacher carries a book or basket, but occasionally he brings an ax. As the small girl in white drifts along, Teacher resembles a grim reaper following after the young soul. However, readers will quickly realize that Teacher is Shiva’s protector, who indulges in fantasy and play rather than tell the child about the tragic circumstances of her abandonment.
As Shiva’s protector, Teacher guards her from Insides and Outsides alike. Interestingly, he also guards her from troubling information that might crush her spirit. For example, when Teacher discovers Shiva was orphaned and abandoned by her neighbors because of a curse, he develops a story to reassure her that it is all temporary. Additionally, Teacher reads to Shiva from a book detailing the Outsiders as evil and the Insiders as good. As her teacher, he makes the information accessible to her without traumatizing her. He reassures Shiva that she is safe and that she belongs, even though he is an Outsider.
Despite his efforts, Teacher’s fear of hurting Shiva with the truth keeps him awake night after night. Indeed, Teacher seems to embody the feeling of many parents: how do you educate your child without crushing their innocence? As a result of Teacher’s internal conflict, the curse he bears becomes a symbol for the knowledge of mortality.
THE GIRL FROM THE OTHER SIDE: Confronting Trauma
Compared to the isolated creatures on the Outside, Teacher’s connection to Shiva saves him from existential anxiety accompanying his exile. This is largely thanks to Shiva’s devotion. For example, when she realizes he is upset, she earnestly cares for him. As a result, Teacher learns to play dress-up and have tea parties with Shiva, even how to bake her favorite pie. Instead of fixating on past traumas or worrying about the possibilities that Shiva may be cursed, Teacher embraces Shiva’s joy for life.
Over the course of the series, Shiva repeatedly encounters Insiders and Outsiders who do not wish her well. Nevertheless, Shiva sees the best in all creatures and hates cruelty. She even stops Teacher from destroying another Outsider when it attempts to kidnap her. It is surprising to Teacher and readers that Shiva remains so kind in the face of trauma. As the girl from the other side, Shiva’s view of the word is different from the Insiders, and her ability to manage trauma is also different. As a result, Shiva and Teacher demonstrate the many ways the series explores trauma and healing.
Teacher, who cannot remember his own origins, navigates the trauma of his life by digging through old documents and worrying about Shiva’s safety. Conversely, Shiva seems to trust that her family did not mean to leave her. Moreover, Shiva wants the best for everyone. In one poignant moment, Shiva’s elderly Auntie is gravely cursed. After staying with Teacher and Shiva, Auntie eventually drifts away in her fear and transforms into a tree. Instead of feeling bereft or angry, Shiva is calm and almost content, matching the comic’s overall style. It seems as though Shiva understands the transformation frees her Auntie.
Siúil a Rún: Overcoming Anxiety and Loss
It might be a cliché to say that Teacher learns more from Shiva than she does from him. However, the young girl’s awe for the world and her natural kindness allow Teacher to enjoy the world with new eyes. Despite the curse, Teacher finds joy in giving Shiva a chance to experience the world around her. As a result, the child seems unafraid of the other Outsiders or the curse.
Ultimately, THE GIRL FROM THE OTHER SIDE meditates on the possibilities that come from letting go of fear. As Teacher helps Shiva navigate the dangerous world, the two companions find ways to enjoy their brief time together. The manga’s subtitle, Siúil a Rún, ultimately suggests that letting go of fear and allowing your loved ones to experience life at its fullest, is the only antidote to a life of anxiety and sadness.
Featured image courtesy of Seven Seas Entertainment.