Note: This post contains spoilers.
When you look at the manga Mysterious Girlfriend X, it’s hard to believe that it lasted for over eight years. Sure, it’s not much compared to Ah! My Goddess, which also ran in Monthly Afternoon but for an astounding 25+ years. Yet the everyday romance of a boy and a girl connected by, of all things, a literal swapping of saliva, feels less like it should have been a consistent presence in manga and more an odd one-off (which it originally was). But last Mysterious Girlfriend X has, getting over the years not only an animated adaptation that is available both streaming and on home video in the US, but even seeing the actual manga itself available in English.
Given its long publication history, I’ve found that my life has naturally progressed since I began reading it all those years ago, and that when I come back to the title it’s from a different place. Yet, I still remember my feelings towards Mysterious Girlfriend X from back then, and it’s interesting for me to compare both the feeling of reading it one month at a time versus all at once, and from a person about 8 years younger to where I am today.
Mysterious Girlfriend X is the story of a young couple. Tsubaki Akira one day meets the eccentric Urabe Mikoto, and on some bizarre impulse decides to taste some of her drool that had been left on her school desk. Afterwards, he finds himself ill in a way inexplicable to doctors. Eventually, he learns the cause from Urabe herself: he’s having withdrawal after not being able to taste her saliva after a few days. The reason? Love, simple as that. According to Urabe, Tsubaki has fallen in love with her, and their only choice is to become a couple, especially given how Urabe herself reciprocates his feelings. However, their relationship is an unconventional one, and though they won’t even kiss or hug, they’ll taste each other’s drool. For some strange reason, this “bond of drool,” which allows them to communicate unspoken thoughts and feelings with each other, is a connection beyond typical human comprehension, brought about by love and desire.
Given this description, it would be very easy to assume that Mysterious Girlfriend X is some kind of saliva fetish manga, but in that regard the title is often misunderstood. What I described above is the initial premise to get things moving, and rather than having the manga consist of different ways to present drool lust as some sexual deviancy, it’s more a means to an end to explore various facets of their relationships, from Tsubaki learning about Urabe, to Urabe understanding her own feelings better, to the growth of their relationship in comparison to others’. In Bakemonogatari, the character Senjougahara comes up with a word to describe the main character Araragi’s feelings towards her: not moe or whatever, but captivation. Tsubaki’s view of Urabe is a similar phenomenon.
Having re-read the entire series recently, I noticed that marathoning it results in quite a different experience. This is obvious to a certain extent, but what I mean more specifically is that when I originally read the series month to month, it was easier to notice long trends (some might even call them ruts) that the manga was going through. However, reading it all at once made me aware that Mysterious Girlfriend X has rough arcs and turning points for Tsubaki and Urabe. I doubt the series had some kind of intricate forethought behind it (Legend of the Galactic Heroes this manga is not), but some seeds were sowed along the way, and by the end they bear fruit.
At the start of Mysterious Girlfriend X, the narrative is mainly about Tsubaki trying to learn about firstly what it means to have a girlfriend and secondly the utter enigma that is Urabe. Here, both he and the reader get to see for the first time not only the bizarre “bond of drool,” but also Urabe’s superhuman skill with a pair of scissors that she tucks into her underwear, her willingness to swap spit but not kiss, her refusal to ever let Tsubaki have a photograph of her smiling, and other eccentricities that separate her from others. She comes across as alien both literally and figuratively, perhaps even occult, especially when compared to the relatively normal relationship between Tsubaki’s best friend Ueno Kouhei and his girlfriend Oka Ayuko. We also learn about Tsubaki’s family, particularly his very motherly sister.
Gradually, the layers of mystery surrounding Urabe are peeled back. The first major turning point comes amidst this relationship between Tsubaki, Urabe, and the reader, as we learn about Tsubaki’s late mother through the fact that Urabe can read his latent memories from when she passed away (through his drool of course). Though Tsubaki is unmistakably a reader-insert character to some degree, here he becomes an individual of his own, and the connection between the two deepens.
From there, we get to see how Urabe herself changes, how she sees the relationship from her perspective. In particular, the manga begins to present Urabe’s own character flaws, such as her possessiveness (which turns out are also shared by Tsubaki), as well as her own growing desire to be with Tsubaki. Here, she becomes more human, and while still an unusual person is less mysterious by virtue of how much time the two spend together. The most notable events in this part of Mysterious Girlfriend X occur when Tsubaki’s bond with Urabe is put to the test. First, an old crush of Tsubaki’s comes back to try and seduce him. Second, an idol who bears a striking resemblance to Urabe (and thus a source of jealousy for Urabe when Tsubaki begins to secretly collect magazines of her) trades places with Urabe. When I first read these storylines, they felt like mini-arcs much like what came before, but now I realize that they are more or less milestones for Urabe and Tsubaki, the points at which their feelings resonate more strongly than mere appearances or past loves.
At the same time, the introduction of the Urabe look-alike, Imai Momoka, also signals another turning point for the series, towards what might be the most meandering and out-of-control part of the manga. Here, Mysterious Girlfriend X begins to enter a realm of fantastic occurrences and even stranger fetishes. While Mysterious Girlfriend X is not exactly a realistic series in certain key aspects, it starts off feeling somewhat grounded in an almost palpable sense of intimacy and desire between Tsubaki and Urabe. In early chapters, the dark attractiveness of Urabe is expressed in moments such as this, which are weird but understandably thrilling for Tsubaki:
In contrast, immediately after Imai Momoka we get, of all things, “eating bacon while wearing cat ears”:
Other questions from this part of the manga include “Wouldn’t it be great to count the moles on your girlfriend’s body?” and “What’s more attractive, droopy eyes (like Nozomi from Love Live!) or slanted eyes (not in the racist sense, but like Ogiue)? Eventually the series is able to parlay this into some forward progression between the two, introducing another rival for Urabe in the competition for Tsubaki’s affections (the aforementioned “droopy eyes”), but when you’re reading from month to month it can feel like a kind of narrative limbo. I do want to point out once again though that all of this has more or less nothing to do with saliva, further reinforcing the fact that the drool in Mysterious Girlfriend X is more a kind of means to an end, and representative of many more things than simply a fetish. It’s a substitute for kissing but also much more, a way to access each others’ feelings and to capture the otherworldly feeling of being young and in love.
Even with the holding pattern that the series suffers, one thing that becomes especially clear during that most unusual section of Mysterious Girlfriend X is the evolution of the creator Ueshiba Riichi’s art style, which becomes less round and cute as was his way in his previous manga, and a bit sharper and more angular. Whereas his characters looked shorter and rounder, by the second half of the series they begin to look not only more mature but more expressive as well, especially with Urabe’s cat-like eyes. Even Ueshiba himself points this out when he discusses how his changing art style might make things difficult for the character designers.
Another clear indication of Ueshiba’s improved character drawing skills is Oka, who physically is supposed to be as small as an elementary school student but with the body of an adult. The way this is originally portrayed is rather jarring, as Oka looks more like a human being who was hit by a shrink ray, but as the series progresses she ends up looking more properly like a girl who’s simply really short.
Eventually though the series begins to wrap up, and I think the most telling thing about Mysterious Girlfriend X and its motivations as a bizarre romance come from how it builds up towards its conclusion. The most significant developments at this point are not characters taking the next step physically so much as them sharing more information with each other. We learn how Oka and Ueno became a couple. More and more characters learn about Urabe and Tsubaki’s relationship, notably Tsubaki’s sister, who throughout the series has run into Urabe multiple times under the pretense that she is merely one of Tsubaki’s classmates. As Urabe reveals the truth about her connection with Tsubaki (conveniently leaving out the drool thing), there is a passing of the torch as Tsubaki’s sister, who has pretty much been a mother to Tsubaki all his life, acknowledges Urabe as the one who will become the most important woman in his life. Whether reading on a monthly basis or altogether, the way in which Mysterious Girlfriend X heads towards its ending is somehow surprisingly tame yet still quite appropriate for how the series has been throughout.
There’s a bit of controversy surrounding the ending to Mysterious Girlfriend X, as the manga throughout its 92-chapter run has teased a kiss between Tsubaki and Urabe while also showing many other couples kissing. Even in the final chapter a kiss never happens, as while Urabe finally asks for one, Tsubaki refuses upon learning that it would mean the end of the ritual that has defined their relationship up to this point (kissing is basically exchanging saliva, so there would be no need to do it the other way). Instead, Tsubaki asks if they can’t just keep doing their routine as they always have, at least until they graduate high school. For some readers, this ending is the ultimate denial of what the series had building towards, and indeed the series appeared to be working its way towards their first kiss. However, I find that it’s clear, given how much their relationship grows over the course of the manga, that their first kiss will happen, they will have sex for the first time at some point, but these events will happen off the page, in a future that the manga does not allow us to witness except in our imaginations. By keeping their kiss away from readers’ eyes (but at the same time showing plenty of other characters kissing throughout the series), it is the final emphasis the bond of drool as representative of their strange love as indicative of not just how love looks when you’re young, but also how it feels. Following that, one might say that the point of those almost-kisses is purely in the tease and enjoying that tease is fun in its own way.
The final chapter also has a number of callbacks to significant events throughout the series, including Tsubaki’s late mother, and the excitement that sparked Tsubaki and Urabe’s relationship in the first place. The example below also of course shows off the difference in art mentioned above.
Ueshiba writes at one point that he never had a high school romance, let alone something as unusual as the one depicted in Mysterious Girlfriend X, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve begun to find that the quirks that were seemingly brought forth through sheer fantasy on Ueshiba’s parts are closer to reality than perhaps he even realized. Moments which seemed ridiculous five to eight years ago are not so far from actual reality as I’ve witnessed it. Sure, I haven’t seen anyone stick their finger into someone’s mouth and eat their drool, but the meaning and intent behind those actions also exist in reality, or at least the “realness” of one’s emotions.