Remember how I said I try not to gush? That whole blah-blah-blah about how I only talk about books I enjoy, but that doesn’t mean I’m here to rave about them? Yeah, I lied. Or at least, I am breaking that self-imposed rule once again, because holy smokes! Akino Kondoh makes my heart beat faster and puts stars in my eyes. I triple, quadruple heart her! So put your cynical pants aside and join me in a round of unabashed adoration.
Hakoniwa Mushi is her first collection of manga stories, and I was literally thrilled when I came across it at the oddly amazing bookstore I found in Nakano on this last trip to Japan. Why I never went into this place before I will never know (actually, probably because that sprawling Mandarake is in Nakano and I always end up going there), but their manga section on the second floor had one of the best selections of alternative stuff I’ve ever seen. It is where I found the previous lovefest manga, Papa ga Mo Ichido Koi o Shita. And when I was poking around in their alt-manga section, after having grabbed the latest issue of Erotics f off the shelf, I saw Akino Kondoh’s name and for a moment, I actually couldn’t believe my eyes. Her stuff is never anywhere. (Her publisher needs to do something about that!)
Kondoh is also a fine artist, active in the art world with shows of paintings, drawings and animations, and that really shows up in her manga work. She seems to take the perspective of the whole, how the entire story will look rather than just focusing on a single image or the narrative thrust. She alternately takes advantage of and gets rid of the traditional manga structure such as dialogue and panels. And the panels are rarely a boundary for her. Flowers spill over the sides, characters dump buckets of water into the panel below, sound effects push past the confining black boxes.
What’s really striking about her work is her crisp outlines and great use of black and white. She almost never shades with grey, but instead uses black and white to create these really sharp images with striking depth. The clear beauty has me stroking each page tenderly as I drink it in. It always takes me longer to read her work because I can’t help spending an enormous amount of time on each page, singing “Pretty!” to myself.
But more than the pretty is the great story. Hakoniwa is filled with metamorphoses, as is pretty much all of Kondoh’s work, and I am a sucker for transformations. In “Tentomushi no Otomurai” (The Ladybug’s Funeral; UPDATE: I just discovered that she calls this story “Ladybirds’ Requiem” in English. She also made an animation with the same title along the same lines), the protagonist sees buttons everywhere after accidentally killing a ladybug, whose squashed corpse looks like a button to her. But these buttons are real, and she collects them, pulling four-holed pieces of plastic out of flowers in the garden, the stars in the sky, a rabbit’s ear, anyplace that could possibly or impossibly have a button in it. She sews them all into the inside of her skirt, and when she opens the ladybug-murdering curtain, her skirt flies up and all the buttons turn into butterflies, ladybugs, flowers. (This is one of the pages that I stroked lovingly, and that I keep coming back to. So incredible!)
In the very short story, “Tsume o Kita Yoru no Koto” (The incident of the night I cut my nails), she is walking in the rain when she is suddenly surrounded by ten copies of herself, who then multiply into hundreds of copies and carry her off. This carrying off is a real thing for Kondoh, as are the bugs. Both ideas recur over and over in her work. Sometimes, the carrying off, like in “Tsume o Kita”, is involuntary and terrifying, but other times, it’s voluntary, a willingness to experience new worlds, as in the title story, when she opens her dresser drawer and finds a tiny world populated by herself at many different ages.
Kondoh’s stories are both surreal and personal, sometimes with the personal leading to the surreal. And sometimes, the personal just wants the surreal, but the surreal remains stubbornly at bay. The protagonist, always the same sullen-faced woman evocative somehow of traditional Japanese paintings, buys her first white blouse in “Ame no Hi Shatsu” (The Rainy Day Shirt), only to find that every time she wears it, it rains. But when she buys a new umbrella to go with the shirt after getting rained on numerous times, the first time she goes out wearing the blouse and carrying the umbrella, of course, it doesn’t rain.
Or in one part of the title story, she feels compelled to play the piano, even though she has an appointment that she’s late for, because what if the world collapsed if she didn’t? It’s probably this that makes me love her the most, this earnestly personal confessional style underlying so much of her work. She takes the neurotic moments of everyday life and turns them into something magical. If you lift the keyboard cover, the Nile River might just come pouring out at you. Stare at ants long enough on a hot day, and they will totally turn into butterflies. And I want to believe her. Which is maybe why I am gushing here. I want to believe that underlying my workaday world, there is something terrifying and magical and spectacular. Something warm and beautiful and painted in gorgeous contrasts. And although I am not the believing type, Kondoh always manages to pull me in.
A fair bit of her work’s been published in French, so if you read French, hunt her down. And she had a story in the English Ax collection (that’s her stuff on the cover), so you monolinguals can get a taste of her awesomosity there.
UPDATE: You can read my translation of “Ladybirds’ Requiem” over in the February issue of Words Without Borders. And you should! It is such a great story.