Manabeshima: Island Japan

Manabeshima

Title: Manabeshima: Island Japan
Artist: Florent Chavouet
Translator: Periplus Editions
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 2010 (France)
Publisher: Tuttle
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.

Manabeshima Page 111

The Briefcase

Title: The Briefcase
Japanese Title: センセイの鞄 (Sensei no kaban)
Author: Kawami Hiromi (川上 弘美)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Year Published: 2012 (America); 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 176

Kawakami Hiromi’s novel Manazuru, translated by Michael Emmerich and published in 2010 by Counterpoint, is a strange, dreamlike story told from the perspective of an otherworldly and unreliable narrator. Manazuru is about pain and bitterness, and broken hearts and broken families.

Kawakami’s newest novel in translation, The Briefcase, is a far cry from the atmospheric surrealism of Manazuru. Its narrator, Ōmachi Tsukiko, is a single woman in her late thirties who is firmly grounded in reality. The Briefcase is about her daily life and centers around her encounters with her former Classics teacher, Matsumoto Harutsuna, whom she still refers to as “Sensei.” Two decades after graduating from high school, Tsukiko meets Sensei by chance at a neighborhood bar, and the two strike up an easy friendship. Each of the ten-page chapters in The Briefcase details an episode in this friendship, such as a trip to an outdoor market or a mushroom hunting excursion with the owner of the bar Tsukiko and Sensei frequent. Seasons change, but not much else does. Nothing particularly dramatic or unexpected happens throughout the large majority of The Briefcase, and the novel’s close attention to detail provides much of its charm.

Although it doesn’t become apparent until a little more than halfway through the novel, Tsukiko gradually develops romantic feelings for Sensei. I would love to say something along the lines of “despite the significant age difference, the relationship between Tsukiko and Sensei blossoms beautifully;” but, in reality, it’s quite awkward. Not only is the situation itself awkward, but both Tsukiko and Sensei are awkward people. They’re not charmingly awkward, or amusingly awkward, or so awkward that want to hug them – they’re just awkward. Still, the gentle progression of their relationship is entertaining in its earnestness, and Kawakami describes it from Tsukiko’s perspective with commensurate delicacy:

At some point, sitting beside Sensei, I began to notice the heat that radiated from his body. Through his starched shirt, there came a sense of Sensei. A feeling of nostalgia. This sense of Sensei retained the shape of him. It was dignified, yet tender, like Sensei. Even now, I could never quite get a holf on this sense – I would try to capture it, but the sense escaped me. Just when I thought it was gone, though, it would cozy back up to me.

The quiet normalcy of The Briefcase is satisfying in and of itself, yet there are some disturbing undercurrents running through the novel. Why is Tsukiko alone? Why is Sensei alone? What happened to him? Why does he always carry around his briefcase? These uncertainties serve to make the story more intriguing, however, and don’t escalate into a full-blown crisis until the very end of the novel, when Tsukiko undergoes a startlingly surreal experience. During two of the final chapters of the novel, Tsukiko’s feelings for Sensei, as well as her fear of his rejection, are explored in a strange sequence titled “The Tidal Flat – Dream,” which may or may not have actually happen. This chapter is a unexpected break from the regular mundane atmosphere of The Briefcase, but it pulls the novel together thematically in a creative and unexpected way.

Allison Markin Powell, who also translated Dazai Osamu’s Schoolgirl, deftly conveys the lightness and humor occasional strangeness of Kawakami’s prose. Although Powell’s English is flawless (with the possible exception of a few out-of-place Britishisms), her style of translation leaves the reader with no doubt as to the Japanese setting of the novel. Passages like…

“Yes, today is a tomobiki day. But tomorrow is a red-letter day, a konoe-tora!”

…and…

Daikon, tsumire, and beef tendons, please, Sensei ordered. Not to be outdone, I followed with Chikuwabu, konnyaku noodles, and I’ll also have some daikon. The young man next to us asked for kombu and hanpen.

…are not uncommon. It’s an interesting style of translation that emphasizes the novel’s focus on peaceful daily life in a richly detailed environment, and it’s fun to read. The culturally specific words scattered throughout the text can be largely ignored if you’re not feeling up for a hyperlinked adventure on Google, though, so they shouldn’t be distracting for the reader.

The Briefcase is a gentle and quiet novel that’s enjoyable both for its story and for its atmosphere, and it’s much more accessible than Manazuru (which is not to say that Manazuru is bad, just very weird). It’s literature that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I very much enjoyed reading it.

Gate 7

Title: Gate 7
Artist: CLAMP
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Shūeisha
Pages: 180 (per volume)

There is a haiku by Bashō that goes something like “even in Kyoto, I miss Kyoto” (Kyō nite mo kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu). I love Kyoto, and I think I know what Bashō was talking about. Kyoto is a special place. The food is delicious, the city is filled with countless shrines and temples, all sorts of interesting historical stories happened in Kyoto, the tea and vegetables grown just outside of Kyoto are amazing, there’s a vibrant nightlife catering to the students who come to the city’s numerous universities, tons of artists and craftsmen make their homes in Kyoto, and the local sake is out of this world.

Almost every grade-school student in Japan gets dragged on a class trip to Kyoto at least once, and even adults make pilgrimages to Kyoto to see the sights (especially during the spring and fall, when the cherry blossoms and maple leaves are at their best). Since Kyoto is only about two hours away from Tokyo by bullet train, the city also has a reputation as a good place to go for romantic getaways and weekend partying. Kyoto is totally awesome, and almost everyone in Japan has been there at least once, so it’s always been surprising to me that there aren’t more manga set there. CLAMP’s new fantasy series Gate 7, however, is like a love song to the ancient capital.

Gate 7’s teenage protagonist, Takamoto Chikahito, is just as much in love with Kyoto as I am, but he has somehow managed to make it almost all the way up to high school without having ever been there. He saves up enough money to make a solo visit to see the sites; but, on his very first trip to a famous Kyoto shrine called Kitano Tenmangū, he is suddenly transported onto a magical battlefield. Chikahito witnesses a beautiful young warrior with an enormous sword defeat a strange creature before passing out. He wakes in a house near the shrine, where he is attended by the child, named Hana, and her two older companions, Sakura and Tachibana. Sakura, a kind-hearted and cheerful young man involved in the world of geisha and maiko, and Tachibana, a serious and sullen college student, discuss how strange it is that Chikahito was able to enter the magical realm. Tachibana then attempts to erase Chikahito’s memory but fails. In the final coup of strangeness, the androgynous Hana kisses Chikahito and tells him that s/he’ll be waiting.

At the beginning of the second chapter (actually the first chapter, as the previous chapter is considered a “prelude”), Chikahito has somehow been transferred to a high school in Kyoto. As soon as he gets off the train that has brought him to the city, he sets off for a famous soba restaurant, where by chance he encounters Hana, who is as happy to see him as s/he is to eat bowl after bowl of noodles. Chikahito is soon dragged into another magical fight with Hana, in which it is revealed that all creatures are affiliated with either light (陽) or darkness (陰). Sakura is affiliated with darkness, Tachibana is affiliated with light, and Hana, for some mysterious reason, can fight using the power of either. By the end of the day, Chikahito finds himself invited to live with the trio in a traditional Kyoto townhouse in the Ura-Shichiken district (the hidden side of the Kami-Shichiken neighborhood around Kitano Tenmangū), an invitation which he ends up accepting, to his own consternation. It turns out that, during their first meeting, Hana had cast a spell on Chikahito that would cause him to return to the Ura-Shichiken.

The second and third chapters of the volume develop this fantasy version of Kyoto a bit further. The reader learns, for example, that major historical figures have been reincarnated in our own time, and that these personages are battling over both the position of head of their respective families and the possession of the legendary familiar spirits called “oni” that are connected to these positions. Chikahito also learns that Hana unique in not being affiliated with light or darkness, and that he is special in the same way. Furthermore, he can see oni, which normal humans cannot. In other words, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes in Kyoto that most people don’t know about, and Chikahito has somehow found himself right in the middle of a conflict spanning hundreds of years and multiple dimensions.

Gate Seven moves quickly through both plot points and battle scenes, but I found it to be a perfect balance between an action-oriented title like Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle and an exposition-oriented title like xxxHolic. Backgrounds, dialog bubbles, and movement between panels are all handled effectively and artistically. The character designs are appealing and seem to be drawn from a wide range of CLAMP styles, such as those on display in series like Legal Drug and Kobato. Veteran readers of CLAMP’s work should find themselves right at home:

Chikahito is appealing as a hapless yet loveable protagonist, much like Hideki from Chobits. Also reminiscent of Chobits is the character Hana, who occupies a strange liminal position between ontological dualities. Is Hana a boy or a girl? Is s/he a child or an adult? Is s/he a person or a pet? Is s/he innocent and weak or completely in command of the situation? Is s/he even remotely human?

There is a lot of magic and mystery contained between the pages of Gate 7, as well as some interesting historical revisionism. The series plays with questions such as: What if Buddhist magic (妙法), as well as the principles underlying Taoist divination and geomancy, were real? What if the Shinto gods were real? What if the major figures of Japanese history were somehow more than human?

The city of Kyoto, with its temples and shrines and traditional houses and narrow alleys and delicious soba restaurants, provides a pitch-perfect backdrop to the story. At the end of the volume is a section called “Wandering Around Kyoto” (ぶらり京めぐり), which provides addresses, websites, and other information about the real locations visited by the characters. Dark Horse has the North American rights to the manga, and I hope they’ll include lots of Kyoto trivia (as well as historical and cultural information) in their own translation notes when they release the first volume this October. Gate 7 is shaping up to be a good story, and it’s interesting just as much for its setting and its take on history as it is for its fights and its handsome male characters.