The one where 20-somethings find a life purpose

Inio Asano, Solanin (2006)

I was searching for non-clichéd standalone mangas via Amazon (i.e. no fantasy / ultraviolence / sex / SF / Pokemon), and the algorithm found Solanin for me. I am very grateful for the Amazon algorithm, but I remained a bit suspicious of its taste, so I hope the next thing I did will not make me a total cheapskate in your eyes: I borrowed it from the library.

Solanin is about Meiko, a young 20 Japanese girl, just out of college, who hasn’t a clue what to do with her life. She’s doing the conventional, expected thing as an Office Lady (a junior clerk) and is bored to tears. Her boyfriend Taneda has a creative job that he seems to like, but it is part-time and doesn’t even pay the rent, so he always ends up crashing at her place. Together with other friends from university, Taneda play in a rock band that mostly gets to meet for rehearsals and drinks and pity party. One day on a whim Meiko quits her job, essentially because she feels inadequate and fears that she lives a passionless, lifeless dreary life. She has six months’ savings to figure out what she wants in life.

At about the same time, Mr Smithereens and I sat through a few episodes of Lena Dunham’s Girls, and we had that awkward conversation where we tried to pinpoint what people see in it, and ended up wondering if we were just too old, or too European to “get it”. I kept sighing and wanting to tell those girls to “just grow up” and I felt totally out of synch with what’s supposed to be the icon of a generation (is it?).

But weirdly enough, the manga and the series both deal with early adulthood, and figuring out who you want to be, and unsurprisingly given their respective cultures, they don’t give the same answer, although both answers must be credited with avoiding clichés and simplistic resolutions.

I had a hard time relating with Solanin’s main character at first, especially as I didn’t quite warm up to the design itself. But she kind of grew on me, especially as she starts out as meek and dreamy and ends up taking more risks and decisions than I’d expected. Quitting seems an immature reaction at first, but after a tragedy strikes the small circle of friends realizes that they can’t delay taking chances if they ever want to live their dreams. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers but I was taken completely off guard by this tragedy that occurs around the middle of the manga (end of tome 1 for those 2-volumes editions) and I totally respected the author for trying something so daring for the genre.

It reminded me of the podcast Lit-Up on that episode where they discuss what makes you an adult.  Their discussion with Meghan Daum points that having a child is not necessarily the (right) answer, and that often it’s when something bad has happened to you, the first glimpse of life’s unfairness or brutality defines adulthood. In Solanin we see characters growing up in that direction under our very eyes, and that’s very moving.

The one for marathon runners… and others too

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (1987)

For those who know me IRL, it seems crazy that I’d ever read a book about running. Come on, I run half a block and I’m totally out of breath, begging my 7-year-old for mercy.

But Murakami got me there, and I have him to blame that Goodreads now recommends me books like “Lore of running” or “Marathon: the ultimate training guide” (algorithms beware: I’m a tough cookie to crack).

As a matter of fact I have been misled by the French title, that reads as: Portrait of the writer as a long-distance runner. It got me thinking that Murakami was doing a kind of deep metaphoric parallel between running and writing.

Yes he does, sort of, but it’s also as straightforward as the Carver-inspired English title: “what I talk about when I talk about running”. He just means business.

The book is about his passion for running, why he came to this discipline when he decided to become a professional writer (as a way to keep fit after his more physically active first career as a bar owner), and how he trains for various races and why on earth he would impose himself such an ordeal a to run an ultra marathon or a triathlon (he admittedly hates cycling).

I liked the tone of the book, decidedly humble and down to earth (no pun intended). Murakami doesn’t take himself to seriously (although he’s dead serious about never walking in a race) and he doesn’t even try to convince you that running is the best sport ever and that you have top run a marathon otherwise you’re a loser (running has become such a competitive fashion these days that I’d feared the preaching): he’s clear that not everyone is made for it and will love it. More often that not it feels like getting a peek into his private diary and running log.

It was hard for me to relate to his experience, but I enjoyed his honesty and his direct very visual sense of painting a scene (he ran in many places, among them Cambridge, Mass. where we intend to go later this year). At the end I was moved and surprised how he touched the universal subject of getting old and the ineluctable limitations of our body.

PS. The book was not enough to make me want to run, but it’s a great motivational reading for anyone who wants to get fit and develop good habits!

The one about the atomic ripple effects

Fumiyo Kono, Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms (2004)

Another manga for me, but not a great success on my side. I would have loved to love it. It deals with a subject too often overlooked: the longterm consequences of the atomic bomb on people from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The book is made of 2 stories, the one set in 1955, the second a two-part novella set in 1987 and 2004. Very cleverly, the manga is not about the fateful events themselves, and we get no horrific, realistic depiction of victims and death. On the contrary, the story is about what survivors went through and how events still shape reactions and prejudices against Hiroshima people.

The first story was more straightforward and accessible to me: a young woman who survived the bombing as a little girl and lost all her family members but her mother, lives in a slum and works as a seamstress. She is quite shy, especially as a young man takes a romantic interest in her. As he declares himself, she suddenly has a flashback of the events she went through, runs away from him and soon after falls sick due to radiations.

The second story was very complex in terms of plotting, and while the characters had depth, I kind of missed a lot of the subtle hints of backstories and references and I couldn’t stay afloat with the flashbacks and all. It was totally lost on me. What I understood, though, is that Hiroshima people were treated with distrust, not compassion, and that they were “damaged goods” even decades later, not worthy of getting married with, or be friend with, just in case their mysterious illnesses would be contagious or transmitted to their children. I’m not sure if this is still the case and how the tragedy of Fukushima has had any parallel consequences in today’s Japan.

The excuse for my lack of attention is that I didn’t really enjoy the art, which looked sometimes simplistic, sometimes clumsy, sometimes cute. In my opinion, it was not nervous enough, it was barely touching the surface of the issue (yes, I know how Japanese it sounds). I can only dream what the precise pencil of a Taniguchi would make of such a story, I bet I would have needed a box of handkerchiefs close by. But here, I was just annoyed because the whole story was way too polite and didactic. Obviously the author has researched her subject at length, and I’m told there are many little details to make Hiroshima quite real on paper (geographical details, dialects, lots of end notes), but in a way her intention of showcasing a little-known story was quite heavy-handed.

Mmh, I am aware that I criticize the book for being both too polite and too heavy-handed. Perhaps it’s not the book’s fault then, perhaps it’s just bad timing on my part.

The big reference on that subject is obviously Black rain, from Masuji Ibuse. I watched the movie by Imamura as a teen, and it was a shocking experience, so I never had the courage to read the book. Did you read it?

Ito Ogawa, The Restaurant of Love Regained (Jap. 2008)

‘Tis the season where we all frantically try to tie all loose ends before the end of the year… which  actually doesn’t make much sense. This is a struggle doomed from the start. Yet I am guilty of hoping and trying every single year. I’d love to have all my books neatly finished when the bell strikes, and all my blog posts lined up with a nice bow. Sigh…

Sometimes it’s a mistake not to write about a book right after finishing it, sometimes it makes us more balanced in our opinion. But actually, I haven’t made up my mind yet.

At first, the book grated on my nerves because of its lack of focus and its (in my opinion) forced naivety. Rinko works in a restaurant in town, she has an Indian boyfriend, who suddenly takes off with all of her (theirs) belongings. From the shock, she stops speaking altogether, only communicating with writing and gesturing. She gets back to her mother’s home, in a remote countryside village, which she left when she was 15, and decides to open a restaurant, because that’s the only skill and passion she has. There’s also a pig that doubles as a pet for her mother. And the very special relation to food that Rinko has.

Maybe it was my stomach that had the upper hand over my brain, but I hadn’t had time to get acquainted to Rinko in the first pages, so her bad breakup was not a real tragedy to me. But when she frantically searched for her beloved cooking tools in her empty flat, and found only a jar of pickled vegetables inherited from her grandmother, and that she hangs on to it like a lifesaver, I kept on reading.

Who uses a pickles’ jar as a plotting device? For sure the book was going to be kitsch, quirky and a bit heavy of the metaphors.

The description of food, the special respect that Rinko has for plants, animals and natural resources that end up on the restaurant’s plates and bowls was actually the best part of the book to me. Yes, there is also gruesome bits when it comes to preparing meat from a live animal, but personally it didn’t bother me and it made me quite sympathetic to the writer’s project. Gourmet cuisine is an art, but it’s also an act of destruction, of consumption. Despite the difficulties, the writer managed to convey emotion and sensation to food, which is no mean feast.

But for the rest, I found that the book followed too many directions, too many anecdotes, way too many characters (Rinko prepares bespoke menus for her customers, so we get a lot of back-stories), many of them quite teary and predictable.

It was a quick read and not unpleasant at all (I am not a vegetarian, I hasten to add, and I have no problem with eating weird stuff), but it didn’t live up to its potential.

Back from Holidays with a Treat!

Usually, when French people come back from holidays in late August (the entire country sort of shuts down from 08/5 to 08/25, except for the tourist industry), there are bad surprises in the mail: the tax sheet and lots of invoices. That makes you get back in the (grumpy) mood right away, believe me.

But this year, a nice surprise awaited me too, that helped me find the courage to open the tax sheet: a book by Pushkin Press: Salad Anniversary by Tawara Machi, that will come out in October!

Some years ago I wrote a review of this book after I fell in love with these evocative poems full of those tiny moments daily life and mundane emotions. Machi Tawara had used a very old poetry form to express herself and created a huge success in Japan.

Some 5 years later I opened the book afresh (the one I’d read was a library copy) and I enjoyed it again. Here a few lines that resonated with me this time, from the poem Hashimoto High School (Machi Tawara is a teacher):

Proctoring the exam,

Suddenly I think of each one’s mother,

The day she conceived this child

 

Parents claim to raise their children,

but garden tomatoes turn red

unbidden

In case you need a refreshing break from fall’s hectic schedule (back-to-school! new projects at work! budgets! the end of year already looming! arggh…) and the noise of social media, a book of poetry (in paper with a clean design and a cute cover) is a good place to start.

Interrupted: Kazuo Umezu, The Drifting Classroom (1972)

Sometimes I wander among the manga shelves at the library, and I feel like a grandma trying to buy clothes in a hipster shop. Does it ever happen to you?

I simply lack references and so I have no clue how to choose something that I might like. Actually, I do have some references, but they are quite old and come from anime I watched in the 1980s or 1990s: Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Cat’s Eye and such. After all, I was raised with Candy Candy and lots of other Japanese anime, and I’m a big fan of Studio Ghibli. I’m not totally a virgin in the manga department, but it seems that genres have evolved so much that the popular mangas now have nothing to do with the older generation’s. So where should I turn now?

The other problem is more practical. At the library, every time I get attracted to a title, I discover that the volumes 1 and 2 are already borrowed. The only manga whose beginning was available at the time was The Drifting Classroom.

In retrospect, I should have known something was amiss when the person at the library desk raised her eyebrow at my choice. And perhaps it was no coincidence that nobody had taken these two first volumes.

It was soon confirmed. I read the first volume within a few hours and then I told myself: this is a pure nightmare, you should not go on: this is my first ever horror manga, and probably the last for a long, long, long time.

I have nothing against post-apocalyptic science fiction (uh, well, that’s not quite true, I have decided to avoid McCarthy’s The Road, I’m too much likely to get depressed by its theme), but nothing prepared me for that. Survival manga with lots of gory details. With main characters being elementary school children. Ugh.

I must be grateful I’ve read (skimmed, rather) Lord of the Flies as a novel a lifetime ago and that words are not as, well, visual, because perhaps it would have looked a bit like that. Except the violence is much worse. Add post-apocalyptic monsters. And don’t get attached to any of the characters, because they’re likely to die in horrible circumstances in the next few pages.

Well, I wanted to try something new, didn’t I? I promptly returned both books, it was a different person at the desk, but in retrospect, a pregnant mother with a 5 yo borrowing a horror manga? Perhaps a raised eyebrow was a bit of an understatement.

After all, it’s October, so if you’re looking for something seriously creepy, look no further. But don’t come back here complaining that you haven’t slept a wink or you’re shocked out of your wits.

Yoko Ogawa, Secrete Cristallization (Jap. 1994)

Original Title: Hisoyaka na kesshō, 密やかな結晶 (translated to French but sadly not -yet- to English)

I will go back to all those books I finished long ago and never managed to speak about here, but I have to say a word right NOW about the book I finished yesterday, so moving and powerful it was. I nearly finished the book in tears and I’m still sad this morning, as if I’d lost a real person and not a fictitious character.

I owe SilverSeason a great “thank you!” for pointing me toward Yoko Ogawa again, a prolific Japanese female writer I’d read years ago but a little neglected of late. It’s easy to dismiss Ogawa’s books because it’s always very subdued: characters aren’t shouting at you for attention and plots aren’t dazzling you with clever tricks and turns. They are subtle, a bit slow, always very polite, slightly apologetic, and never wish to disturb you, just like perfect Japanese manners would require.

But disturb you they actually do, because of the bizarre circumstances that characters seem to consider banal and the accumulation of small touches that eventually build a cruel, moving, fantastic world. In this novel, the narrator is a young woman, a novelist, who lives on an island where things disappear.

Regularly, the inhabitants discover that something, may it be an object, an animal or an emotion, are disappearing from their lives and their memories. The remaining objects are to be destroyed or rid of and people don’t even remember the name of the disappeared thing. At the beginning it’s small “useless” “stuff”: candy, perfume, music boxes, then it moves on to flowers, birds, calendars, books. People who can’t forget are rounded up by the police. In this Kafkaian totalitarian world, people aren’t very unhappy, they have a melancholy tone and a numbness that goes with not quite living normally, but they make do and always remain polite and disciplined. They are more  worried about the lack of food and the continuous bad weather (“has spring disappeared too?”) than by the ever-diminishing pool of things and feelings they are allowed to keep, because they aren’t even aware of what they miss. That’s heart-wrenching.

The young woman who tells the story is no rebel, but she knows that her publisher, a man who remembers way too much, will sooner or later get arrested, and she just knows that she has to have him near (Ogawa’s characters aren’t prone to self-analysis). She decides to hide him in her home with the help of an old man, friend of her family. The relation between these three characters is full of respectful gentleness, which softens the cruelty and incredible darkness of the world Ogawa creates.

The reader is increasingly aware that there’s no way out in this plot, as things that go missing get closer and closer to what make people humans. Their hearts, devoid of memories and emotions, are more and more full of cavities (as Ogawa say), and soon they even lose limbs, making Ogawa’s world even more absurd (dark humor and morbid. The published tries to rekindle memories and emotions in the young woman but his attempts aren’t quite successful.

It’s definitely not a book to read when you’re melancholy, but the poetry and the beauty of the descriptions of banal disappeared objects, the gentleness, the sheer humanity of these odd characters make it a precious and deeply original experience.

Akiko Itoyama, Waiting in the offing (Oki de matsu, 2005)

Two novellas are offered together in this book, both of them with fresh voice and subject. The subject is work, office life, at its most banal. Reading those I once again realized that not so many novels represent a faithful image of what we spend most of our days at. The voice is original too. If you tend to think that Japanese fiction is always about delicate feelings and emotionally detached characters, think again. Akiko Itoyama presents two women with straightforward, even blunt voices (with some slang). itoyama’s women are not the cute, Hello-Kitty- or Louis-Vuitton-collecting type we might come across in Japanese clichés.

The title story, “oki de matsu” is about a special kind of friendship between two colleagues, Futo and Oikawa, the woman who tells the story. They have bonded years ago as they have been recruited together and sent to the same provincial office. There share old jokes, intimate details, they know by heart what the other will say and do at work, they help each other, spend most days together and yet they are not friends in the general sense (they don’t see each other outside work) or lovers (there is absolutely nothing sexual in the novella).

It was a kind of a-ah moment for me to realize that I have many such “friends” at work: people I know so much about (if they eat their meat rare or well done, where they put their savings, what secret present they’re preparing for family for Christmas), yet I haven’t met their kids or wife and wouldn’t spend a weekend with them because we don’t share any outside interest. We are loyal to each other, confide each other some stuff, yet there’s a line that protects our “outside persona” from our professional one. (Is it a personal thing or a French thing to keep worlds separate? I don’t know).

In Itoyama’s novella, these two colleagues have kind of crossed the line: they have pledged each other, on one of those alcoholic office parties Japanese favor, that the one who will survive the other will go to the deceased home and destroy his or her computer’s hard drive so as to erase embarrassing details. They have even exchanged keys. So what happens when Futo dies in an accident? Will Oikawa feel her part of the pledge?

The other story present the flip side of the workplace. “Kinrô Kansha no Hi” (Labor Thanksgiving Day) is about a woman in her late 30s who has been unemployed for some time. She worked in one of those nasty male-chauvinistic workplaces ripe with sexual harassment and she quit without reporting it. She only got out of it a bad reputation, and now she’s bitter and quite cynical about the Japanese Big Corporate world. In the novella she is pressed into accepting a blind date, but the guy turns out to be completely full of himself and brown-nosing his way up the corporate ladder. Needless to say, these two are not set for the happily-ever-after ending.

I liked both stories for their strong heroines full of dark humor, matter-of-fact realism (mixed with magical realism!) and would look forward to reading more from Itoyama, but it seems that she hasn’t been much translated beyond these two.

ETA. I misspelled the author’s name: it’s Itoyama and not Toyama. Sorry!

Yu Nagashima, Mother at Hyperspeed (2001) and Dog in a Side Car (2002)

These two novellas are published together in France under the first title, but it’s pretty misleading because the mother in the second story is hardly present.

Anyway, it seems logical to present them together. Both stories are told from the point of view of a child (a girl in the Dog…, a boy in Hyperspeed…) not quite into their teens (I’d say 12). Both children are sensitive, and rather wise for their age, lonely and introspective, but they seem aloof and don’t register much emotion while adults play havoc with their family life. They coolly observe adults acting emotionally, sometimes foolishly, but always unexpectedly.

In The Dog in a Side Car, a young woman, Kaoru, remembers a particular summer of her childhood when her mother had left her home and children (her brother and herself) under the “care” of the father, who is every bit of a loser. He’s supposed to run a used-car business but he’s mostly a lazy feckless guy who likes to play tricks with his buddies.

On the contrary, the mother seems a model of neurotic, petit-bourgeois rigidity and it’s little wonder that the self-possessed little girl is not particularly saddened by the absence of her mother at first, especially as both parents fought all the time. She enjoys a bit of freedom, especially as her father’s “girlfriend”, an eccentric young woman, Yoko, settles in. There’s no trace of judgment in this pretty sticky situation, because the girl is so young that she seems to take in everything as normal, and she doesn’t consider the future or the implications of all the events that the adults are going through.

Yoko is a bit of fresh air for the young girl. She helps broaden her horizon and brings joy, laughters and passion to her otherwise dreary and empty life. But as we read it as adults we know that the summer’s arrangement is only temporary and that Yoko will leave sooner or later. The novella ends on a bitter-sweet note as we are to contemplate the later development of the family after Yoko left and how Kaoru and her brother grew up.

The second novella is about a young boy who is raised by her divorced mother. After the divorce they have gone to live in a small town in Hokkaido where she grew up. She fights to build a new life despite financial hardships, the pressure of her parents to remarry and the pressure of her boyfriends to make concessions. By little touches, we get to see how much the son cares for her mother. Like Yoko in the other text, the mother in this text is very far from the cliché of the meek, polite and conventional Japanese woman.

These two novellas leave a light, subtle impression and there’s a lot more to enjoy than just the facts I’m crudely summing up here. The children’s voice in each story is pleasant and clear. Sadly Yu doesn’t seem to have been much translated (although both novellas won literary prizes in Japan), but I’m always happy to give a chance to new Japanese voices.

Daisuke Igarashi, Little Forest (Jap. 2005, Fr. 2008)

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!