The One with the Boring Bureaucrat

Seicho Matsumoto, A Quiet Place (1971)

Oh, I totally get the appeal, and I think you might too: the case of the ordinary guy. The case where some nobody gets mixed up with something bigger and more exciting or dangerous than his usual routine and how he gets out of his depth and rises to the occasion (or not). After all, this is the basis for so many mysteries and thrillers.

But the thing is that it’s truly hard to make a novel exciting if your main character is dull by essence. Like, a banal civil servant working at the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture. I don’t know anything about the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, but apparently these guys have (or used to have, this being published in the 1970s) a whole lot of meetings and a whole lot of business trips, with speeches and applauses and dinners and geisha involved (this being Japan, I guess it’s to be expected). Also, a whole lot of brown-nosing to step up the corporate ladder, which is not only limited to Japan and to the 1970s, sadly.

Tsuneo Asai is a tough main character to love. It’s hard to empathize with someone who is so deeply into his professional career at the ministry of whatever. I’m sorry he doesn’t come from money, I’m sorry he hasn’t the right connections and the right diplomas, but I don’t really care. Still, he’s a bit obsessive, and he has put in the necessary hours, and has studied hard until he has achieved this expert reputation in his field. Well, good for him, but not good for the book. The main character is plodding, and at some point the pace of the novel threatens to be plodding too.

The point where we start to care is when it becomes obvious, early on, that his career is much more important to him than his wife. He’s a callous husband, a cold guy. He has married because he needs someone at home to take care of him and because of social conventions. But he sure doesn’t love his wife. So when he gets the news, while in business trip, that his wife died from her well-known heart weakness, he doesn’t bowl over with grief. If anything, he seems numb, cancels the rest of his trip after lots of apologizing to his boss, and goes through the motions of funeral arrangements.

Then things veer off his routine, because he can’t shake the idea that there’s no good reason why his wife died where she did, in a beauty shop in a neighborhood far from their home. The rest of the novel is his obsession to get to the truth, whatever the cost. Not even because he respects truth out of principles (he can lie his way to a promotion), but because he’s a relentless bureaucrat and bureaucrats don’t leave stones unturned. Of course, there’s more to it. Of course his wife was not just what he thought she was. Where will it stop? Everything is in his head, and not much in his heart, until he loses his bearings.

It is a very curious and interesting mystery. I could compare it, in opposite terms, to Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s Blank Wall. An ordinary housewife gets embroiled with something dark and dangerous, clearly out of her depth. Where Asai reacts with his cold logic, Lucia reacted with warm gut feelings. But both stories are outside of the genre conventions, and make me want to find more about their authors.

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The One with the Tokyo Pilot’s Wife

sous-le-ciel-de-tokyo-1-delcourt_mSeiho Takizawa, Sous le ciel de Tokyo (2 vol., Japanese 2010, French 2017-18)

I have finished in one setting, this afternoon, a two-volume manga about Japanese war planes.

Should I repeat this sentence? Can you believe it? Ahem, which part of the sentence didn’t you quite believe? That I finished a book in one setting, or that I devoted an afternoon to a manga about war planes, of all things?

Yes, all this is highly implausible, but it did happen, just like snow in Paris last month. Weird and unusual. But I recently read 400 pages on Japanese war bikes, so I’m staying within the same theme, just switching transportation mode, right? Not exactly.

Just like the unclassifiable Taiwan novel, this manga is pretty much one of a kind. It’s a two-volume seinen manga (i.e. for adult men, but not porn) set in Tokyo during WWII. The two main characters are husband and wife. Husband Shirakawa is a test pilot in the Japanese airforce. Wife Mariko is a housewife with her own strong character. Their fairly balanced and realistic relationship is quite refreshing in a manga world that is often full of clichés. He is passionate about planes (and it gets as technical as you can get, for people who love this kind of subject – not me), but he also wants to eat during the flight exercise and the lunchbox Mariko prepares for him is often one of those small surprises that make the couple believable.

Mariko is devoted to her husband but also has her own interests and friends. She’s worried about him but it’s not everything in her life. They are suitably patriotic for the period, but they’re not brainwashed: the scene when Mariko as a pilot wife is called to lecture the neighborhood by the local safety committee is part comical part heart-wrenching.

What I enjoyed most is that the mangaka has obviously taken a lot of care to recreate the daily life in those troubled times, down to the food, the houses, the clothes, etc. (the last volumes present a few pages of detailed explanations). Also the planes, obviously, but that was not what interested me most. It was quite an interesting change to see the war in Japan but not to focus on Hiroshima and the nuclear attack. Mariko and Shirakawa allude to the event, and she tends to disbelieve it. Finally, it was great to end the book not on Japan surrendering to the US, but to follow Mariko and Shirakawa for a few months afterwards, to show what it meant for a professional air force soldier, the uncertainty of demilitarization and the difficulties of the after-war period.

I’m always on the lookout for atypical mangas and this one was a complete success for me. I’m not sure if it is translated to English.

The One with the Fukushima Girls

Reiko Momochi, Daisy (2 volumes, Japan 2012; French 2014)

I stumbled upon this two-volume manga at the YA & Children library. It was in the kids’ manga shelf and belonged clearly to the Shojo genre: the one for young girls, with cute design, big-eyed, long-limbed heroines whose primary concerns normally revolve around boyfriends, BFFs, pop culture idols and pets (from my adult perspective I guess). It has a pink cover and a flower’s title. But it is not what it seems.

This one is indeed different, since the four heroines, Fumi, Moe, Aya and Mayu, are high-school seniors in Fukushima, where in March 2011 the tsunami caused the nuclear plant to explode and contaminate the whole area. Set at the end of 2011, they struggle with the aftermath of the catastrophe. Not only do they have exams looming and university choices on their mind, but anxiety, displaced or separated families, radioactivity, prejudice and feeling of powerlessness. Not your typical shojo indeed.

Reiko Momochi is a manga artist who is not afraid to address big subjects, and she has visited several high-school classes in Fukushima to prepare the manga. She has chosen four ordinary girls, not victims or refugees themselves, but Momochi’s political denunciation of the situation is all the more chilling and moving. The invisible threat of radioactivity lurks everywhere and gnaws at every family,  every person. Small kids are forbidden to play outside, but how long can they live this way? The older refugees miss the homes they won’t ever return to. Those who leave the region feel as if they are letting down their neighbors and friends. Yet when they are outside of their province other Japanese people look at them with distrust, they refuse to accept them, to buy food grown in the area, to marry women from the area. And the government says everything’s fine.

I challenge anyone to read both tomes with dry eyes. It’s the first time I read such a political manga and I can imagine (and hope) that it’s very effective to transform young people’s attitudes and make them understand with nuance other people’s hardships. Even while talking about deeply tragic and complex situations, the manga still manages to be positive and hopeful.

The One where Hello Kitty Turns Angry

Risa Wataya, Kawaisoudane? (Japanese 2011) Pauvre Petite Chose (French 2015)

At first glance it’s a very light book, perhaps even a bit shallow. Julie is a Japanese young woman, employed at a department store selling luxury clothing, who is both ambitious and naive. When her boyfriend, a Japanese raised in the US, announces to her that his ex- is moving in with him, because she has no job and no money for the rent anymore, she raises her eyebrows but eventually comes round to it, because he assures that there’s nothing between them anymore, and that Westerners are cool with it.

She sure doesn’t like it, but she likes even less the prospect of rocking the boat because she loves him, or so she thinks. She doesn’t want him to think she’s uncool and a traditionally uptight, provincial Japanese girl, when he’s supposed to know the ways of the (Western) world. They each keep their own studio, but Julie still believe that he prefers her over his ex. Unless… Doubts and confusion gnaw at her until she can’t avoid confrontation anymore.

I thought I would finish reading within just a few hours, but in the middle of the novel I though “wow, it’s so clever!” and decided to slow down. Risa Wataya packs a lot within this short, short plot (142 pages). Economic uncertainty, job pressure, mindless sexist routines of female jobs, love disappointment, ambition and self-improvement at the cost of denying her own personality, self-doubt, broad cultural considerations brushed up with lots of humor.

Risa Wataya has received the Akutagawa prize when she was only 19, in 2003, and the Kenzaburo Oe prize for this very novel. While the main character is typically Japanese, the theme of the social pressure to conform is quite universal.

I don’t speak Japanese, but I saw that the original title Kawaisodane has been translated into different ideas that are slightly different. One is “isn’t she pitiful?”, which could equally refer to Julie or to the jobless ex-girlfriend. Another is “isn’t it a pity?”, and the French one is literally “Poor little thing”. In French depending on the tone the interpretation can range from pity to snarky to complete contempt. Another funny thing to contemplate is the difference between the French cover (where poor Julie is starting to find it not so funny anymore) and the original Japanese cover, where everything is just a cute (cutesy) world of girly fashion and flowers, the perfect world Julie aspires to.

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.

The one with Chinese black kids in Japan

9782203095427_1_75Daisuke Imai, Sangsues (Volume 2, Hiru, Japanese 2011, French 2015)

I confess that I wanted to confuse you, reader, with Chinese black kids. The black kids I’m referring to here have nothing to do with African Americans.

It has to do with Chinese one-child policy (recently amended) that did not quite manage to stop families from having more than one child, but that effectively condemned the “surplus” child to a life on the margins of society, without legal existence, without ID papers, that forbids them to hold any lawful job with any protection or social security, to own property, to inherit, to marry or go to university. Pretty grim don’t you think? I was familiar with this concept in China, but I never really saw these population as characters in a fiction, much less in a non-Chinese fiction.

“Sangsues” (Leeches) is a 5-volumes manga, and the first volume I read during summer was thrilling and intriguing enough for me to follow the series. Considering I mostly ever read graphic novels (in one volume) and not series, considering I’m pretty bad at following book series in order, that’s no small praise.

Of course volume 1 left me with a huge cliff-hanger, and I wanted to know what would happen to Yoko, the young 21-year-old who’d decided to disappear and live in other people’s homes during their absence. She thought that she could enjoy an easy life this way, but things became more complicated once she discovered that she wasn’t the only one with this lifestyle, and that lawlessness ruled.

In this volume Yoko meets one of these Chinese black children, illegally smuggled to Japan by human traffickers. The manga still follows Yoko, but the part with this Chinese character manages to convey the sense of helplessness, jealousy for the legal sibling, revolt against this unfairness, bitterness against the parents for condemning them to this life. All these in a fluid succession of black and white stark images full of contrast and opposition and with sparse dialog.

I really enjoyed the chilly atmosphere of the manga and the fact that characters are never one-dimensional. Yoko, who often seemed naive and egocentric, in the first volume, gains some depth in this volume. She’s also able to care for others and question her own decisions, especially that to not return to her family. Her choice of an easy life as a freeloader gets a reality check, and the freedom she sought in this lifestyle is often an illusion, especially when she gets to meet people who are condemned to this life instead of having chosen it. She still gets by by luck and ingenuity, but she might be too caring for the world she’s entered in.

By now you’ve probably guessed it: I can’t wait for volume 3!

The one that makes you double-check the locks

Librairie 16 rues Moines 75017 Paris

This is where it all started… a small comics place without a name…

Daisuke Imai, Sangsues (French 2015, Japanese “Hiru” 2011)

Here comes the post that answers the probably most suspenseful question of summer (besides “when can I be on holidays pleeease?”): “which manga did I choose?”… Offered three tantalizing options by a very professional bookseller, I went with the manga called “Leeches”.

Yes I know, yucky! Isn’t this title evocative enough? Indeed it is very creepy. So creepy that I’m effectively hooked.

I could have gone with the zombie/freedom of art one, but I am a mother of two young children, one of which is able to read on his own and interested in any comics/manga that lays around, and the art was quite explicit, so I kept the title in mind but couldn’t really buy it. A responsible mother wouldn’t do that. That’s what you call self-censorship.

Anyway I don’t regret my choice. “Leeches” is full of promises, considering that it’s the first of a 6-part series. It highlights a bizarre Japanese social phenomenon I was hardly aware of: the disappearing act of thousands of people in Japan, who simply go missing one day. The name is “johatsu” like evaporation or disappearance. Apparently the police doesn’t really try to find them, or can’t due to administrative red tape.

While preparing this post I stumbled upon an investigative book about such people, by Léna Mauger and a French (Belgian?) photographer Stéphane Remael. I didn’t read the book but his pictures from his website are quite sad and haunting, as disappeared people or their families left behind say a few words about their distress and why they chose to leave everything and go under the radar: bullying by the yakuza, debt or job loss, struggle with their spouse or family… They disappear into the anonymity of big cities, just like this manga’s heroin (but the comparison stops there).

Yoko is a young woman who has ran away from her family to go find her boyfriend in town, but had to leave him too (I don’t want to disclose too much). Without any resources or friends she hides away in plain sight, while normal people go about their lives, she sneaks into empty flats to use other people’s belongings, food, bed. Nobody seems to notice subtle changes in their home (I believed I would, but with a baby at home, if something is not exactly at the same place when I come back from work I wouldn’t pay attention). Yoko takes care to leave before the rightful owner comes back, and with a rota of several people working different schedules, she actually survives quite well, until she discovers she’s not the only one to have such a bizarre lifestyle, and that other “leeches” don’t like her to mess about.

The story set in the anonymous big Japanese megacity is quite believable to my foreign eyes. There is lots of loneliness, sadness and quite a quota of violence in it (but no zombies). Luckily for my ability to sleep at night, I like to believe that Japanese people have weird habits, that they are very private and don’t care for their neighbors, and that it wouldn’t be possible in my little Paris neighborhood where concierges (caretakers) would notice or ask questions about a new girl sneaking in and out of the building.

Or would they really?

The one about the one-man comics shop

Finding a good bookseller is like finding a new friend. It’s a rare occurrence when it clicks.

As a principle I try to support independent bookshops when I don’t buy English books, but I rarely meet a passionate and knowledgeable seller who takes the time to find the book that I would love.

The nearest indie bookshop has a bit of everything, from art books to children’s corner, from classics to travel guides. They will push you towards bestsellers, and if you come with a title, they’ll order it for you for the next few days, which is not so bad. But they never try to put themselves into the customer’s shoes and get personal (that’s typically Parisian, you need to be there at least 3 years before you get a nod of acknowledgement).

On my way to the market on Saturday mornings I pass by a tiny bookstore specialized in comics and manga. They also have some children’s books. I shouldn’t really write “they”, because it’s all a one-man affair. For years I’d never stopped, because the store seemed a bit messy, and I mostly borrow graphic books from libraries, because I don’t really trust my choices and want to try stuff I’ll be able to return. Like that happened more than once. Also, I am prejudiced to think that this kind of shops mainly targets young nerd-ish male readers. A middle-aged mother with young kids and a stroller full of vegetables and cheeses fresh out of the market? I thought I wouldn’t exactly be welcomed.

I came in during winter to buy a picture book for Baby S and I ended up buying one for my older son as well, Chien Pourri (Rotten Dog?), a hilarious tongue-in-cheek series about a stray dog (I’ll post about it one day for sure). My son fell in love with the series: the shop owner obviously knew his stuff.

I came in again for children’s books, and then last Saturday I took the plunge and asked for advice. How to describe my taste in graphic novels? Standalone preferably to series, no fantasy or superhero, no horror and no kinky stuff but no special allergy to violence. I was looking for a shojo but nothing twee. He offered Taniguchi as a first choice, and when I said I knew a lot of his works, the conversation got going.

He said he had exactly the thing for me: Solanin. When I said I’d read it and loved it, it was like a new ping-pong game. What now? He offered a lesser-known Taniguchi centered on a detective specialized in finding lost dogs. I’d loved it too! (although I didn’t review it? It doesn’t seem to have an English translation though) We were now evolving in familiar territory.

He came up with 3 serious propositions:

– the first about an old man leaving his family behind, by Takashi Murakami. Although I loved the cover art, I was less taken by the manga design itself (you can get a sense here) and it was kind of depressing for a summer weekend… It’s a two-part manga (bonus point) and the shop owner said it was his personal choice.

– a second option is the first of a 5-part series by Daisuke Imai, about a young woman who decides to leave her life behind (is there a trend here?) and who lives by stalking other people and entering their apartment when they’re at work. She has access to several flats and thinks she’s one of a kind, but then she finds out that she’s not the only one living off other people, on the outskirts of normal life. The French title means “leeches”, so you get the idea… It really looked intriguing, but a bit scary in the realistic vein…

– the third option was quite bizarre and ventured into deeper topics (not that the previous two were light either): censorship and the limits set to the creator’s freedom. Can a mangaka write about anything, and if so, will he get published? The title is Poison City, by Tetsuya Tsutsui. Here, the artists sets out to design a ultra-realist zombies series and has to navigate publishing politics and much more. Apparently the manga alternates chapters between the zombie story and  the publishing story. I’m not fan of zombie to say the least, but the topic of this option really appealed to me.

Now, what would you have chosen? I let you guess, and I’ll give you the answer in a few days, with a proper review.

The one that made me roll my eyes and clean my cupboards

Marie Kondo, the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Japanese 2011, English 2014)

Oh my, how conflicted I am about this book!

I have no previous allergies to Japanese quirks, a mix between cute, weird, naive, formal and efficient. I like self-help books and organizing books when they inspire you and cheer you up. I should be an ideal convert to the Konmari method. Like millions of people around the world, apparently.

But this… How this book has managed to make it to the New York Times bestsellers list is beyond my comprehension. Sure, the idea of minimalism is selling like hot cakes these days, and apparently it helps when the one who tells you to do it is a smiling, foreign young woman. As if there was a secret recipe. As if there was a magic trick.

But Marie Kondo soon tells it herself: there’s not one single method, you just have to follow your heart and fill trash bags. If you don’t know what to keep, throw everything out, your heart will tell you what it misses most. A few good ideas are packaged with the weirdest recommendations (balancing them out in my mind, if not cancelling them completely), thrown together with enough episodes of the writer’s memoir to convince you that she suffers of OCD.

To reach an actual book length, things are rehashed ad nauseam, otherwise the gist of her ideas would easily get into a leaflet. The promotional information you get here and there are actually a good synthesis and saves you from the weirdest parts of the book: the pages where Marie Kondo recommends that you speak to your purse and furniture, that you thank your objects before throwing them away, and to have a little thought for the plight of your socks. I’m too much of a rational Western girl here, she entirely lost me at this point.

Halfway through I figured the writer was so completely crazy that it was a comic book rather than an organizing method. There are unintended hilarious passages, especially as she takes herself so seriously (the people who have followed her cult method have a glow and everything goes well in their lives, she says). And I certainly didn’t wait long before applying her own method to this book, that I resold as soon as I’d finished the last page.

On one hand, the book made me cringe, because it seems that her method is only suitable for single people who have a lot of time on their hand. On the other hand, her method is surely appealing, because it doesn’t need much for you to start: does this object spark any joy? Yes, it stays, no, it goes. No need for complex strategies to build a capsule wardrobe or a perfect system. Still I would have liked it better if she’d talked about recycling and reselling instead of throwing all away and being proud of a number of trash bags.

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.