The one beyond Japanese clichés

Fumio Obata, Just So Happens (English 2014)

Yumiko is Japanese but works in London in a graphic design firm. She feels at home there with her boyfriend and many friends, it’s been a while since she visited her family back in Japan. But now she needs to go back: her father just died in an accident and she needs to attend his funeral.

This graphic novel is the story of her journey back to her home country, to her roots, to her parents and towards grief and growing up. There are many things left unsaid and Yumiko needs to address them and make peace with her life choices, especially because relationships are so codified and formal in Japan. The art is soft-spoken and graceful and I was quietly moved by this story.

Yumiko keeps thinking about Nô theater, a rigorous art where actors hide behind masks and seek perfection in playing non-speaking roles where every gesture carries century-old meaning and where there’s no space for any personal interpretation. Yumiko sees in this art a metaphor of this funeral where everyone acts as expected, following rules and traditions without personal feelings.

She also visits her mother, who was divorced from her father. Yumiko’s mother is a quiet feminist figure, who underlines how Japanese women are pressured to conform to social conventions. She certainly raised Yumiko as a free-thinking, independent, courageous young woman and that partly explains why Yumiko emigrated to London, but she herself remained in the shadows. We get a sense that her expectations were too high, she may have pushed her daughter to accomplish her own dreams. I loved this part of the graphic novel and would have loved to see more of it, rather than a mere afterthought.

The end of the book is bittersweet: Yumiko will return to London and will probably be happy, but she will remain torn between here and there, never quite at home in any of her both countries. I can’t help but wonder if this reflects Fumio Obata’s own life experience, he who was born in Japan and settled down in UK since the early 1990s.

I loved the elegant watercolors, soft colors and the graphic style that really mix Western and Japanese influences. A nice discovery.

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