Title: Manabeshima: Island Japan
Artist: Florent Chavouet
Translator: Periplus Editions
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 2010 (France)
Pages: 142 (plus one amazing map)
I love French artist Florent Chavouet‘s 2009 book Tokyo on Foot, which captures the charm and vibrancy of my favorite city. Manabeshima: Island Japan was a tougher sell for me, as I’m not particularly interested in nature or rural communities. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that the careful attention Chavouet brings to human habitats – garbage and vending machines and rusting powerlines and all – has carried over from Tokyo to Manabeshima. Regardless of whether he’s drawing the town or the ocean and forests that surround it, Chavouet transforms the mundane into the extraordinary with his gorgeous colored pencil illustrations.
Because he felt that he had only been exposed to a tiny fraction of the Japanese archipelago, Chavouet decided to spend a summer on an island he hadn’t yet seen, and he ended up in Manabeshima, Okayama Prefecture, population 326. According to the artist, the average age of the people living on the island is around 50 years old, and many of them are already well set in their daily routines. Chavouet observes them on their daily progress, taking careful note of their mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, as well as the props they use on the stage of their daily lives. His artistic interest is drawn not only to humans, but also to the island’s abundant wildlife, including cicadas, fish, and cats. These cats gradually become characters in their own right as Chavouet documents their small dramas and battles over contested territory.
My favorite part of Manabeshima is how the artist portrays architecture as a living part of the environment and the island society, with each room and table and upended bucket telling its own story. Cars and boats become palimpsests of personal history, and each garden and untended backyard is portrayed its own tiny ecosystem. Chavouet also pays particular obeisance to food, placing each meal in context, whether it’s a community barbeque or freshly prepared sashimi.
I must admit that a certain amount of anxiety underlay my reading of Manabeshima. As with any travel account, part of the pleasure of the experience involves imagining yourself following in the footsteps of the writer. Even if it’s something you have no intention of ever doing, like the hiking the Shikoku pilgrimage route, it’s still fun to pretend that you’re there along with the author, sharing her triumphs and sympathizing with her tribulations. In the case of Chavouet’s account of Manabeshima, this sort of identification was very difficult for me.
Although nothing in the book makes this explicit, Chavouet’s experiences are gendered. Within the first twenty pages, he makes it clear to the reader that he has been, after a fashion, accepted into the community. He is taken in by Ikkyu-san, the owner of a small bar and restaurant who plies him with food and alcohol, asking only that he sit and eat and drink with the regulars. He is invited to two religious ceremonies (a Buddhist ritual presided over by Ikkyu-san and an evening of Shinto kagura dances), where he is expected only to sit and eat and drink. He goes to the neighborhood association meetings, he gets invited to go out crab fishing, and he participates in the island summer festival. He seems like an extremely friendly person, and he mentions exchanging drawings for food and goodwill; but, if anyone ever requests that he do anything except enjoy himself, the reader never hears anything about it.
My own experience with small communities both inside and outside of Japan is that, in order to be included, I am expected to perform labor, such as cooking or laundry or childcare. Since I am an undomesticated animal who is not good at any of this, things always get awkward. If you asked me if I, as a woman, would want to spend two months in a tiny village on a small island, my response would be something along the lines of AW HELL NO. While Chavouet would be eating and drinking, I would more than likely be summoned to the kitchen to help do the dishes. I use the hypothetical example of being asked to help clean up because it’s actually happened to me enough times (especially in Japan) that I would almost be taken aback if it didn’t. In other words, the price of admission is gendered and – let’s be honest – unfairly so.
Again, there’s nothing in the book that suggests that the people on Manabeshima are old-fashioned sexist pigs, but Chavouet is definitely writing from a privileged position, and your ability to identify with this position will more than likely affect your relationship to the world Chavouet creates for you with his words and illustrations. Personally, I found reading Manabeshima to be a bit stressful because I couldn’t help waiting for the other shoe to drop, like, so when are they going to ask him to serve tea? (Spoiler: No one ever does.)
Don’t get me wrong – I am enamored of Chavouet as a kind and compassionate observer who can communicate the wonder and beauty of even the most commonplace objects and settings, and his already enviable skill in drawing and annotating his environment has tangibly improved since Tokyo on Foot. Still, I can’t help but prefer Tokyo on Foot, which pieces together a physical, social, and cultural landscape that even the most casual of readers can easily enter. While Tokyo on Foot collects a multitude of fragments and progressively demonstrates how they are all connected, everything is already a cohesive whole in Manabeshima, which, unlike Tokyo on Foot, has a cast of recurring characters and something resembling a narrative. On the other hand, although it’s harder for a reader to imagine entering this narrative herself, the easy flow of the story renders Manabeshima a more satisfying extended reading experience.
The best part of Tuttle’s lovely softcover edition of Manabeshima is that it comes with a huge map folded into a pocket on the back cover. This map is intensely detailed, showing every house and garden and boat on the island and labeled with references to people, landmarks, and events from the main text. I spent at least an hour with the map alone, catching new details each time I opened it and spread it out over my kitchen table.
If you have kids in your life, and if you’d like to get one of those kids (or their parents) a really cool present, consider handing them a copy of Manabeshima, whose every page celebrates the thrill of exploration and discovery.
A review copy was provided by the good people at Tuttle Publishing.