Inside Mari comes from the critically acclaimed Shuzo Oshimi (Flowers of Evil, Happiness), an author who was awarded the 2002 Chiba Tetsuya Award for New Artists, and has seen several of his works, including this one, turned into films and TV series. Even Makato Shinkai is quoted on the back cover, stating that "Inside Mari is the modern standard of the body-swap genre".
So this should be a bit good then.
Boringly I'm going to have to agree with Mr Shinkai, and say that this is a pretty fine read. College dropout Isao Komori spends his days distracting himself from reality with computer games and jerking off, with no real future ahead of him, his only foray into a social encounter is with a pretty young schoolgirl who frequents his local store. His obsession extends to following her home, so this makes Isao a bit of a creepy protagonist. Were I reading this without the aid of the synopsis beforehand, I'd be pretty certain we'd all be seeing what was inside Mari since Isao exhibits all the hallmarks of a murderous stalker. A bold choice of lead character indeed Komori-san!
In fact Isao's tale is not completely unfamiliar. As someone who moved around a fair bit as a kid, I can understand how it can be hard to make friends and break into social groups, especially if things like your accent mark you out as "other". It's easy to feel sorry for our lead in that sense, but as I get older, and as a father to a daughter, it becomes increasingly difficult for me to root for the sad loners that often pop-up in Japanese series like this.
I've always maintained that I can't stand weak male leads (I'm looking with daggers at you, Love Hina!) but when it comes to out and out creeps, well I find my tolerance really struggling. Still, there's an air of mystery to how the body swap in question even takes place - following Mari home one night, she stops, turns and smiles, and suddenly it's morning and Isao has taken residence in Mari's body. There's no back and forth as there is in Shinkai's Your Name, and in the book's best moment, we find out there's a genuine twist to the tale that I won't spoil here.
What impresses me most, despite my instinctive dislike of this stalker, is that the writing kept me invested. The mystery overrode my distaste, and there's an interesting puzzle at play. There's a grittiness that appeals too, and certainly Isao is never treated as any kind of hero - perhaps we're in for some kind of a redemption arc, but as a NEET slob with some disgusting habits, it's going to take some skilful writing to get there. I suppose he refuses to cop a feel in his new body or look at Mari naked, so perhaps there's some hope for the young man before the series ends.
The art is up to Oshimi's usual standard - expressive body language compliments the emotive facial expressions, backgrounds are sparse but the heavy tone-work helps bring atmosphere where needed. This is indeed a mature read, but the artwork refrains from nudity or showing the scenes of sexual gratification Isao engages in, though the sound effects are graphic enough.
Ultimately this is a novel twist on the body-swap genre, the quality of the art and the writing are on par with what we've come to expect, and I'm fascinated to see what lies in store in future volumes. Recommended for those that enjoy a more cerebral experience and are prepared to go outside of their comfort zone.