There’s no other way to say it — Japan is a country besotted with the art of comics and graphic novels. For years it fascinated me that so many Japanese people from the young right up to the middle aged read comic books with such visible enthusiasm. My first year here, I was amazed by the stacks of thick, pulpy comic books at newsstands, all printed with gaudy front covers, but in what I perceived as boring black ink drawings on pale orange or green pages. And all of the comics at least one inch thick. A huge handful of pulp paper that could never be rolled and stuck in a back pocket. Eager to see what the excitement was about, I bought one of the just delivered comics and took it home to ‘study.’ At the time I was a long, long way from being able to read and appreciate the stories inside, so my purchase was much more a research project than the hope of a relaxing hour or so with funny stories about familiar characters. There was very little I could fathom the first time I pored over the pages of a Japanese comic book. It was way beyond my language skills.
But that was a long time ago, and since then I have gradually acquired at least a fair understanding of what’s going on in those pages. I’ve not read or tried to read a great number of them, but from my limited experience I learned enough to know that these comics are not really the kind of reading I most enjoy. I have an appreciation of the art, but less for the stories that the art illustrates or propels. Never seemed to be enough depth to the stories, but I say that knowing it can’t be true for all comic based stories. Unfortunately, I don’t have the degree of interest necessary to hunt down the higher quality or ‘classic’ examples of this genre.
Having said all that, I must now talk about a comic — or in another choice of words, ‘graphic novel’ — that knocked me right off my chair. A friend casually asked me one day what I thought a certain English sentence meant in a graphic novel called Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms. He was trying to get a better understanding of the English, despite having the original Japanese version at hand. I gave my opinion of the meaning of the sentence he was pointing to, but added that it seemed a rather deep psychological conflict for a comic character of some twenty-five pages. The friend offered me both the original Japanese version, and the English translation to take home and read. And later that night, this comic book, or graphic novel, a meagre twenty-five pages of illustrated story knocked me off my chair.
The story of Town of Evening Calm takes the reader back to Hiroshima, ten years after the 1945 dropping of the atomic bomb. The main character of Yûnagi no machi, as the story is called in the original Japanese, is a young woman named Minami Hirano. She lost her father and a sister in the atomic bomb blast, and is one of the many victims of radiation sickness who lived through the nightmare of August 6, 1945. The story begins in 1955, when Minami is troubled by horrible dreams of 1945, by “survivor’s guilt,” and the question of why she is alive.
Despite an outward appearance of being well-adjusted and content in life, the character is deeply troubled by nightmares of the atomic bomb, of guilt she feels over being alive when so many others died. There is guilt as well for not helping others at that time, thinking only of her own escape. Ten years later, each time a moment of joy or possible happiness comes into her life, Minami flashes on scenes of the bomb blast. The radiation sickness begins to weaken her more and more, and as her life slips away day by day, she wonders if the people who dropped the bomb (the Americans) are happy that one more Japanese is dying.
The graphic art in this book is especially good, and the writer/artist has used her drawings to fuel the movement of her story. There is the feeling in reading the book that story and art are carefully, skillfully wedded to produce the richest possible understanding of war, its aftermath, and the plight of the main character.
Read it and you’ll be glad you did.
Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms
by Fumiyo Kouno
First published in Japan by Futabasha in 2003.
English version published by Last Gasp, San Francisco, CA.