There seems to be something of a trend for anime and manga with a certain degree of “aspiration” about it these days.
Whether it’s the explicit gym instruction provided by How Heavy Are The Dumbbells You Lift?, the survival advice that hopefully none of us will ever have to use from Are You Lost? or the crash course in biology that Cells At Work! gave us, it seems that Japanese popular media is on something of an “edutainment” binge right now.
Plus-Sized Elf, first released in October of 2018, falls into this category to a certain extent, presenting the seemingly absurd juxtaposition between traditionally beautiful fantasy species and the distinctly modern problem of obesity. Settle down with a big bag of fries and let’s explore the first volume.
Baby-faced protagonist Naoe Tomoatsu is a massage therapist at Smiley Boar, an osteopathic relaxation clinic that offers relief and advice for those concerned about the everyday health problems of the modern world: lack of exercise, stress and poor diet.
As anyone who has spent any time in the modern world will know, these three things tend to feed off one another. You get stressed, so you want to eat something nice and not do any exercise. Your lack of exercise and poor diet, in turn, causes you to get more stressed, which makes you want to… you get the idea. I’m sure many of us have been there; I most certainly am living it right now as I type this.
But Naoe’s new patient Elfuda is a little different from his usual clientele. She’s an elf who, tired of the bland and unseasoned food from her own world, decided to visit the human realm to see what it had to offer. She subsequently became addicted to French fries, put on a lot of weight and found herself unable to return home because, as it turns out, portals between worlds require you to be the same weight when you leave as when you arrive.
Elfuda’s predicament is understandable, even for those of us who don’t hail from a fantasy world. Before arriving on Earth, Elfuda exclusively ate bland and unseasoned food out of necessity; in her world, much like our own from several centuries ago, spices and seasonings are expensive and hard to come by, so for the most part everything is grilled and boiled. While this naturally results in a very healthy diet, it’s not terribly interesting; eating becomes a routine rather than a pleasure.
Looked at from another angle, this is an attitude we can see in our own world, too. Anyone who has ever attempted to follow a deliberately restrictive diet plan will doubtless be able to tell some stories of the times when they wanted nothing more than something with a bit of flavour to it all; something other than a plate full of greens accompanied by unseasoned lean meat.
Fact is, things that are terrible for you inevitably taste great. They’re full of fats and sugars and salt, all of which make things taste amazing, but also, when consumed in large quantities, cause the body to take in much more energy than it needs — and said energy then gets stored as fat. And, despite said fat technically being stored energy, it can get quite challenging to harness the power of that stored energy and shed the weight.
Elfuda is a character we can immediately empathise with, then, particularly as she is convincingly torn between feeling a certain amount of shame over the fact that her body has changed shape from what it is “supposed” to be, and her desire to continue eating delicious things.
Within the first few chapters, we also see Elfuda encounter another issue that many slimmers have to come to terms with: the rebound. Having successfully followed a rigorous diet, exercise and osteopathy routine in the first month of the narrative, she found herself suitably equipped to return home… only to come right back to indulge her whims, put all the weight back on and find herself right back to square one. Only this time, she’s afflicted with the false confidence that she “knows the secret” of being able to recover from overindulgence.
Naturally, she places rather too much of an emphasis on the “over” part of “overindulgence”, and thus shifting her weight the second time around proves to be considerably more challenging. By this point, however, Naoe is firmly invested in her wellbeing, and agrees to continue helping her.
What would such an aspirational story be without a few other characters to spice things up, though? After this initial setup, Plus-Sized Elf adopts an almost “monster of the week” approach with its subsequent chapters, gradually introducing a host of new otherworldly characters, all of whom have found themselves struggling with issues relating to health and wellbeing.
The first to appear is Kuroeda the dark elf, who is working in a convenience store and has found herself putting on a bunch of weight around her thighs and bottom thanks to her lack of physical activity. She is horrified to discover that, without her noticing, her bubble butt has become so formidable that the magic raiments she requires to cast spells no longer fit properly, restricting her magical abilities considerably. As you might expect, Elfuda and Kuroeda develop quite a rivalry, with some spectacular arguments erupting between the pair of them on a regular basis.
Elfuda and Kuroeda present a nice contrast to one another in numerous ways. Elfuda is a light elf, Kuroeda is a dark elf; Elfuda has gained weight in her upper body particularly, Kuroeda her lower; Elfuda has gained weight due to overindulgence, Kuroeda due to a simple lack of activity; and, back in their home world, Elfuda clearly favours physical activity, while Kuroeda is obviously a mage.
Opposites attract, as they say, and despite the pair frequently being at one another’s throats, they actually find themselves bonding over the one thing they have in common: their desire to improve their lives and lose some weight, with Naoe’s assistance. From hereon, they become something of a comic duo in subsequent chapters, often presenting different perspectives on the various situations they find themselves in.
After Kuroeda’s introductory chapter is over, we next meet Mero, a mermaid who has developed flabby arms because her job as a fishmonger in the market means she doesn’t get much opportunity to go out and swim any more. Then there’s Kusahanada, a mandragora who has developed a backache because the flower on her head has become too big as a result of the recent nice weather; Olga the ogre, who has gained weight from drinking too much human booze; and Laika the lycanthrope, who has become a bit chubby thanks to being mistaken for a particularly cute stray dog and fed by kind passers-by on multiple occasions.
All of the characters’ reasons for putting on weight and ending up in a position where they want to better themselves are exaggerated, silly and fantastical, of course, but they also reflect the variety of ways in which it’s possible for us here in the real world to get carried away and stop taking care of ourselves properly. It’s easy to blame external factors that you don’t seem to have any control over, but in most cases it is possible to mitigate the circumstances and minimise the impact those factors have on you; it just takes willpower — and perhaps an awareness of the problem, which can often be the truly tricky bit — to do so.
Plus-Sized Elf’s first volume is one of those manga where there’s not really a story as such; it’s more a sequence of vignettes that gradually introduce the various characters and set up the main cast ready for future shenanigans. It certainly doesn’t suffer for this, however; all the characters are unique and distinctive, and it’s a genuine pleasure getting to know each of them in their own dedicated chapters.
With regard to the overall subject matter, it would have been easy for Plus-Sized Elf to devolve into easy humour based on fat-shaming, but the presence of Naoe keeps things grounded. While Elfuda and Kuroeda in particular often hurl quite vicious insults at one another due to their ongoing rivalry — and, of course, many years of fantasy-world racism — Naoe is always presented as relatively calm and rational about the situation, offering helpful and understanding solutions to the various problems each of the characters encounter using his own specialist expertise.
While the manga isn’t quite as explicitly educational as something like How Heavy Are The Dumbbells You Lift?, there are still numerous nuggets of helpful advice you can pick up even from this first volume. At various points, Naoe offers advice on simple exercises to improve posture and circulation, as well as dietary advice where appropriate.
Notably, even on the numerous occasions where Elfuda in particular is shown to “lapse”, Naoe never goes so far as to shame anyone under his care. He takes his job seriously, however ridiculous it might seem to be becoming with this gradually increasing roster of otherworldly patients, and honestly seems to have everyone’s best interests at heart.
Interestingly, the fact that the manga has light ecchi elements ties in with all this, too. While the cast’s overall objective is positioned as them wanting to lose weight for various reasons, there are numerous exaggerated scenes in which their “plump” figures (which, let’s face it, aren’t really that fat in the grand scheme of things) are sexualised to an almost comic degree, highlighting the fact that curvy bodies most certainly can be sexy too. The reader is invited to accept these characters as they are, but also to cheer them on as they undergo their own personal journeys.
By the very nature of the medium and the way Synecdoche has chosen to tell the story, it is of course, all a very light-hearted and surface-level look at a serious issue, but it’s the sort of thing that can easily get you thinking, looking at yourself and deciding to make some changes a little bit at a time.
Speaking as someone who needs to lose a lot of weight and has struggled to do so over the years, I can say with honesty that I very much appreciated how Plus-Sized Elf encourages you to see all sides of the obesity issue: how it’s important to be able to laugh and smile about things; how it’s important to have support when you take the difficult first steps into making life better for yourself; how it’s all too easy to make excuses and “start the diet tomorrow”; and how people don’t stop being beautiful just because they don’t conform precisely to what we’ve been socialised into believing are conventional beauty standards.
It’s fun, it’s silly and it’s sexy, but it has something to say. And I’m very much looking forward to the further adventures of Elfuda and company.
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