Let’s dispel a myth before breakfast: mangas are not always about robots that save the world, cold-blooded androids and shirt-skirted heroins with super powers. It’s also, at least sometimes, about growing plants, village friendships and rediscovering a recipe your mother cooked in your childhood.
Little Forest is a refreshing manga in a very original style : part diary, part cooking book, part documentary on growing rice and vegetables in a little Japanese backwater, part meditative and personal elegy, it’s at times matter-of-fact, at times dream-like and sensual (the pleasures of eating and living surrounded by nature). It might be upsetting for people attached to the traditional manga form, but I rather took it like a short story collections with images (sketches and even photos!)
It made me think of Miyazaki’s anime movies in terms of themes, but the art and design are quite different. The manga is traditionally in black-and-white, but the first chapter of each tome (there are 2) are wonderful watercolors – I wish there was a full coloured edition!
Ichiko goes back to her rural village of Komori in the north of Japan (I’m not sure this is an actual village, but I read that it’s in part inspired by the author’s personal experience of living 6 years in the area), after finding herself disappointed by life in the big city.
The details of her life before taking that bold choice are only alluded from time to time, especially the sudden disappearance of her mother and Ichiko’s separation with her boyfriend. Ichiko’s life is about basic survival – she focuses on sensations and physical work. It’s a very Buddhist approach, in a sense.
Villagers there rarely buy food from shops; they do everything themselves, occasionally working side by side and helping each other depending on the season. Ichiko learns their planting and cooking techniques, often from very old grandmothers who are fitter and more ingenious than she in the first place!
Every chapter reads like a page of a diary, placed under the theme of a recipe (all the way from harvesting the plant or picking the fruit to preserving and eating), and Igarashi’s sketches make them very appetizing! Most plants are very local (perhaps even not available in all Japan), so I know I’ll probably never know how they taste in real life, but this book made me wonder. I especially love the beginning chapters, when Ichiko prepares Worcestershire sauce. Like some other foreign foods, her mother made her believe that it was a Japanese recipe, and she created a variation using only local ingredients! Imagine her surprise when she went to a supermarket and discovered it had been invented elsewhere!
I have already at least 2 people in my mind I want to offer this book to. That would make a great present for many more friends, unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be translated into English!