Manga Spotlight: Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms by Fumiyo Kouno Released by Last Gasp
Fumiyo Kouno was born in Hiroshima, Japan in 1968. She dedicates the intertwined stories 'Town of Evening Calm' and 'Country of Cherry Blossom' "to all the people who love this world - in which lies Japan in which lies the city of Hiroshima," and as she indicates in the collection's afterword, to her, "Hiroshima" is as much a place and its people as it is a historic event. As tempting as it is to swing for the fences when praising a work with the artistry of Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms, in this case, it feels inappropriate to bluntly toss superlatives on a work that is as delicate and profound as Kouno's. This column likes to label enduring stories told within the manga tradition "book shelf manga" to distinguish it from the ephemera that dominates the manga being released. From Naruto to Death Note, the majority of even the most popular, engaging manga veer closer to well made pop entertainment than literature. As Jason Thompson points out in his review of Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms, the manga was originally published in Weekly Manga Action, the seinen anthology that was home to Monkey Punch's Lupin III, the story in which the notion of a gentleman thief is devolved into a Mad Magazine inspired gag comedy full of attempted rape and attempted murder, Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's pulp samurai fiction Lone Wolf and Cub and Yoshito Usui's Crayon Shin Chan, the story of a precociously vulgar kindergarten student, blamed by the Japanese PTA for causing a generation of rude children. Yet, Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms has a value that transcends how it was published and that isn't suited for "best", "must read" or other commercial evaluation labels. The Town of Evening Calm is set in 1955. Signs marking the tenth anniversary of the attack with the World Conference Against Atomic Bombs can be seen on the streets. With buses, cars and jobs, it doesn't immediately look like a place of continuing struggle for survival. Minami walks form work to home barefoot, in order to preserve her shoes, and home is a poorly constructed building in the Aioi Doori "atomic slum", with a molding, leaking roof and signs proclaiming "resist eviction!" While this is hard living, it is also everyday life for Minami, her mother, and their community. They've adapted to the hard times and found ways to develop a modicum of physical comfort in this environment. Yet, what Minami can't adapt to so easily is the knowledge that a decision was made to kill the people of Hiroshima, including herself. In everyday life, she sees the scars on the bodies of the people around her and the places where she walked through the dead and dying. There are names for genocide, murder, assault, but, at least in English, there isn't a proper word for the action afflicted on Minami. Country of Cherry Blossoms is set in 1987, then in 2004. It is a step further removed from the bombing of Hiroshima in that it deals with people whose lives have been shaped by seeing the effected. It's as much about reconciling with how others deal with the issue as it is with one's own, direct experiences. Primarily, the story is set in Tokyo's Nakano district rather than Hiroshima. Here, Nanami "Goemon" Ishikawa is a perhaps too energetic young girl, nicknamed for the legendary swordsman/thief because she's interested in baseball and playing rough with the boys. Here, Hiroshima is still more a place than an event, but one that informs the history of a family. Though its scope is very intimate, the shape of the narrative weaves more like a tapestry. As The Town of Evening Calm concerned the experience of the bombed, Country of Cherry Blossoms serves to reflects the wider concern over the hibakusha (victims of the atomic bomb). There's an undercurrent of uncertainty in this story in which people aren't sure whether they can point to a slow learner or someone with childhood asthma and say that their afflictions were caused by the bomb. In Tokyoscope, Patrick Macias has a chapter discussing what it takes for a movie to be banned in Japan. Besides the limitations of depicting sex, certain hot button issues will cause a movie to be pulled from circulation while a Takashi Miike slaughter will find a place on the screen. Problems crop up when lines are crossed with what could be deemed to be exploiting subjects like the rural burakumin or the hibakusha. Similar to the American experience of something like Song of the South or un-PC Looney Tunes, Macias writes that there is an episode of the superhero show Ultraseven that is locked in the vaults because it depicted space vampires who drank human blood to ward off radiation sickness. Part of Country of Cherry Blossoms' subtext concerns capturing how, on one side, there is an impulse to discriminate against or socially quarantine the hibakusha, and on the other there is an impulse to protect them. Yet, Country of Cherry Blossoms contradicts either move to dehumanize. "Orientalism, (Soft) Power and Pleasure," the first essay in Susan Napier's new book, From Impressionism to Anime: Japan as Fantasy and Fan Cult in the Mind of the West, points to a strong vein of essentialism as an aspect in how western appreciators of Japanese art/media view the subject. You know some key details, fit everything around that thin skeleton and think you have the whole picture. If that's a blemish on fandom, it's a gaping wound on western anime/manga criticism. As an aside, if you're going to thoughtfully write a column like this and attempt to say anything beyond a commercial recommendation (buy, don't buy), you have to live with the knowledge that you're bound to make statements that are gross misinterpretations or miscatagorizations. However, handling this sort of essentialism or marginally informed understanding is built into Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms. As Kouno indicates in her afterword, though the atomic bombing is a difficult subject for her, after living in Tokyo for a while, she realized that people outside of Hiroshima didn't really know about the ravages of the attacks. What Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms does is allow one to process the bombing. They are two different subjects and two different artists, but like how Don DeLillo's Falling Man offered a vantage point for comprehending the effects of immediately experiencing 9/11 and how those reactions weathered over the years, Kouno offers sets of eyes through which the effects of Hiroshima can be viewed. If you read John Hersey's Hiroshima or watch a documentary, there's a danger of the horror of the bomb registering as history. It becomes a historical abstract or a political abstract, something to provoke debate in a social studies class. Paradoxically, Kouno gets closer by moving away from the event. It doesn't degrade the sadness, anger or confusion, but by setting the stories at least a decade out, Kouno allows a reader to grapple with the repercussions without the perspective being dwarfed by the entirety of the scope. The beauty in Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms is in how Kouno approaches the medium. Essentially, comics/manga is formed with words and sequential images. Kouno develops the mechanisms for each aspect to shape a very personal connection. In the field of manga, Kouno's aesthetic has pastoral connotations. It's the look of comfortable works that are reconciled with the world. There is something of Hitoshi Ashinano's Yokohama Shopping Trip, or as Thompson points to in his review, Kozue Amano's Aria in Kouno's landscapes and characters. Without downplaying the hardships, there's a human, livable quality to the depiction of Hiroshima that accentuates that it is a home to the people who lived there. When one of Country of Cherry Blossoms' characters recalls it nostalgically, both a credible sentiment and one that Kouno doesn't have to bend her representation to capture. It is possible for a reader to get comfortable with the difficult circumstances of 1955 Hiroshima before Minami's story and perspective are fully revealed. That juxtaposition of slow, guarded hopeful rebuilding and the lingering physical and psychological effects of the atomic attack is one of the manga's most acutely poignant developments. By the same token, there's a classic cartoonist's approach to Kouno's character work. Kouno has the space of full-lengthed serialized chapters to work with, but she employs a comic strip level clarity, where any panel can be read as its own story. As the visual environment acclimates a reader to the stories' context, this character design establishes an instant closeness to the people of these stories, that connection is a key to how these characters leave their indelible mark. At the same time, there is a flexibility in the illustration that allows the point of view to be altered such that radical shifts can subtly wash over the manga. Town of Evening Calm dissolves into Minami's internal perspective. Country of Cherry Blossoms jumps between time periods, not just '87 and '04, but between different frames of its characters' lives. Yet, these transformations are neither mysterious nor jarring. Occasionally, there seems to be light boundaries in the density of Kouno's line work that suggest the switch, but for the most part, past, present and memory looks the same from the stylistic standpoint. It's the distinguishing characteristics in how Kouno captures her people and places that set each frame of reference apart. Kouno's approach leverages the ability inherent in manga to allow a reader to gaze indefinitely at any moment in the story. While some frames demand more attention than others, throughout the manga, there is a rationale to stop, really read what the characters are saying and understand it in the light of their environment. Unlike narratives paced by the cuts of a film or even the length aof description in prose, the manga/comic reader can stop and process. The author can and does suggest a speed by the division of a page into panels of various sizes. But ultimately, the length of time spent on each is up to the reader. Some credit needs to go to jaPRESS for their adaptation/production work. While it’s regrettably not a consistent standard, plenty of manga publisher's have been handling the translation of non-dialog text, namely signs and sound effects, fairly well. Still, the work on Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms stands apart. The work to integrate the text into Kouno's illustrations noticeably improves the fidelity of the adaptation. Especially in Country of Cherry Blossoms, whether it is sloppy handwriting, or signs on roads, buses and trains, it helps to have that immediately understandable text worked into the images of the manga in a manner that is not distracting. There's maybe one line in the manga that can be interpreted as a character voicing a directly political statement. It's also possible to see the natural sentiment behind what is being vocalized. As much as these are human stories about people living there lives, it does not take Kouno's invocation of the issue of depleted uranium shells in the afterword to recognize the broader politics and intension of the manga. But, ultimately, the manga is so graceful in its politics that it should be impossible to object and you'd have to be an absolute hardliner for this manga not to at least shade you how see modern political concerns. As stylized as Kouno's illustration is, her stories have a sentiment of unembellished reality that transforms the stories into testimonials. The specific characteristics of her work that makes her stories moving are what makes them effective as a political message. There are a lot of grand principles explored or espoused in politically edged manga. Yet Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms is able to address something very specific without turning it into a polemic. Osamu Tezuka's Adolf is a powerful, humanist work, with a riveting story. It's also crucially theatrical. The story of a Jewish boy growing up in Japan and a half Japanese, half German boy through World War II and into the 20th century was a Shakespearean knot of complex lives and dramatic ironies. Personally, from the perspective of the factors by which people identify themselves, there's more to connect me to Adolf than Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms. Personally, as much as I respect and value Adolf, I found it much more plausible to identify with and connect to Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms' characters as credible human beings. There are plenty of important works that most people never see because there isn't an opportunity where it is "the thing to do". When it becomes a matter of taking the initiative, when is it the right time to watch something like Grave of the Fireflies or Schindler's List? Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms is undeniably moving. It will leave an impression. But, it doesn't tie its substantiality to its ability to draw tears. When it's over, there's room for considering its implications and not just stunned weepiness. It would be a forced exercise to compare Kouno's approach to storytelling to Hayao Miyazaki's, but like Miyazaki's Ghibli work, Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms can be experienced, mentally processed, then re-read.