I try to only write about books that I enjoyed reading. Because I don’t really want to relive the bad books (and I actually don’t like everything I read, although it might seem that way here), and I want to boost the signal on things that I enjoy so that other people can enjoy them and the author might actually be able to make a living at this writing thing. (Not that people like Upton Sinclair or DH Lawrence need a signal boost, but still.) But I try to keep away from unadulterated gushing. Until today! I love Papa ga Mo Ichido Koi o Shita (Papa fell in love again)! Love! Love! Love! Love!
And for good reason. It’s so funny! The art is so great! The story is interesting and ridiculous at the same time! It’s really, really funny! It walks the line between gag manga and slice of life! Did I say funny enough yet? It’s incredibly funny! It’s funny to the point of making me laugh out loud on a crowded commuter train. I’ve learned to do this thing where I hide my face in the book while I giggle away at the hilarity in these pages. Because I really cannot stop myself from grinning and giggling while reading Papa. And I am not generally a laugh-out-loud person.
I actually picked this up because of the cover of Book 1 (it’s up to Book 4 now, with Book 5 out in a couple of weeks). Goro, the moustachioed protagonist, is walking along with his daughter Tomo and his father Tarosuke, holding hands with someone out of the frame. Then the inside spread has Goro facing a short, balding older salaryman, with hearts floating around their heads. Which to me screamed gay love story, and I was really curious to see how a more mainstream manga might handle something like that.
Within ten pages, I knew that this was no gay love story. Or it was not simply a gay love story. Because the older balding salaryman? He’s the reincarnation of Goro’s dead wife, Taeko. She was a totally hot lady and then she died, and now she is a smelly, overweight salaryman. And she shows up, appropriately, on a dark and stormy night. This is the scene that hooked me. Taeko-salaryman suddenly appears in a flash of lightning, lit from the side with moody shadows, drawn with such exquisite detail and the most perfect whites. It’s threatening, confusing and curiosity-sparking all at the same time.
Abe does not shy away from extremes. The art goes from incredibly detailed and realistic in one panel to uber-cartoonish in the next, and some panels end up being both, with great over-the-top reactions on life-like faces. The facial contortions he can squeeze out of his characters really amaze me. And he does that thing I really like of taking some kind of metaphor and then actually depicting it, so a party in Goro’s pants is really pants full of people having a little party. I just want to post panel after panel of all the amazing drawings that I am totally in love with, but this is Brain Vs. Book, not the Jun Abe fan page.
In a very odd way, this accidentally ends up being a bit thought-provoking in terms of gender identity. Although the main perspective is that of Goro, we do get to see a lot of Taeko dealing with being a woman who is in a man’s body. It’s a bit on the heartbreaking side to see her trying to fit into a world that can’t accept her how she is now. All the women from the PTA at Tomo’s school reject her and laugh about the “old man” trying to spend time with them. Kids make fun of her for her feminine ways. She struggles with her own image in the mirror, the face in her mind not the one in front of her eyes. She cries as she plucks out all her leg hair in attempt to be more feminine. Surprisingly, Abe manages to give a sympathetic and revealing portrayal of a person struggling with gender. I did not expect that in a manga that also has a man worrying if his wife’s junk is now bigger than his.
The cast of supporting characters all manage to bring something new, and all have their own distinct personalities and ways of reacting to Taeko-salaryman. Her parents might be the funniest of all, with her uber-macho, exercise freak, built-like-a-tank dad, and her ultra-complacent mom. Exercise freak dad’s fight to accept Taeko-salaryman is almost too hilarious. His precious little girl is now an old man! He forces himself to hold hands with her in public, enduring the whispered “pervert”s and cold eyes of the people around them, and paints a memorial plate for her, complete with a portrait of her salaryman self and the words “To my dear daughter, Taeko” across the top. He hides in the bushes outside Goro’s house so that he can watch over her. Naturally, he tends to wear a lot of camouflage.
As the series progresses, the daily life and the focus on relationships starts to give way to the gaggier side of the story. Interestingly, you can see this shift in the face of Goro’s best friend Toka, which starts out relatively normal, but by the end of Book 4, his chin is so long and pointy, you could use it to cut glass. Although the series is still super funny, I hope that Book 5 swerves back in the direction of the relationships again. Seeing how all these characters deal with each other and their own issues with the whole Taeko-salaryman thing makes the funny parts funnier because they actually have some depth to them, a foundation to support the whole thing. But I will not complain if all of Book 5 is more hambrained attempts by Goro to either make Taeko less salaryman-like or himself more wife-like. His attempts at switching roles with Taeko had me laughing so hard, I had to get off the train because book over my face was just not enough.