Chokodoshujin: Naoto Yamakawa

Another book that’s been waiting for me for months. And by another favourite author too. Clearly, I need to devote more time to reading. (Because there is no way the solution to this backlog of books is buying fewer books.)

Naoto Yamakawa has had me as a faithful follower for years, since I stumbled upon Kohi Mo Ippai (One More Cup of Coffee) at a mainstream bookstore with a seriously weird manga section way out in the suburbs (back when I lived in the suburbs. Oh, those glorious days of the two-hour commute!). I’ve always been a devoted coffee drinker, and the idea of a volume of short stories revolving around the central pillar of coffee was definitely a selling point, but what really won me over is the art.

Yamakawa is one busy, busy artist who I picture as having constantly cramped hands. Because the level of detail in his work is incredible. Everything is tiny lines! Seriously, this guy does not settle for simple filling stuff in, or shading with tones of grey. Nearly every part of any page of any of his books (for real! He is consistent as hell) is covered with tiny lines: hatching, cross-hatching, circular hatching (is that a real thing?), all the kinds of hatching in the world. All these little lines give his pages such a richness and depth. He’s basically the opposite of the minimalist est em.

But despite his many years of working in this very consistent, detailed style, he has pushed it forward, made little changes here and there so that each of his books is slightly better, slightly more beautiful, slightly more interesting visually. My one complaint with him is that the narrative part of the stories he details so richly hasn’t quite kept up with the slight push forward. He tends to turn his focus on quiet moments, ye olde slice of life, with a few aliens thrown in the mix from time to time. Which is not bad—I love a quiet moment as much as anyone—but it tends to feel tired after eight or nine books. And he’s never done a long-form story so you never really get a chance to get really involved in the quiet moments.So I was excited when I learned that he was drawing a story about Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the writer for whom the prestigious Akutagawa Prize is named, both because I wanted to see what he would do with a longer narrative and because I actually know little to nothing about Akutagawa. (The extent of my knowledge: He wrote a lot of stories and then they named a prize after him.) Yamawaka starts the story in March of 1927, only a few months before (historical spoiler alert!) Akutagawa committed suicide (/spoiler), and uses some really interesting narrative techniques to flesh the writer and his history out. I assume the story will end with the aforementioned historical spoiler, but this story is not only long, it is apparently book-spanning, and only the first volume is out.

But I am not going to dwell on my impatience for the next volume to be released. Instead, I am going to fill my mind with the subtle, yet tremendously effective techniques Yamakawa uses to tell the story that has not ended yet (I’m not dwelling). One of the obvious devices he employs is transforming Akutagawa from a writer of short stories into a manga artist. I’m assuming he made this choice partly because being a manga artist, he has firsthand knowledge of how that world works, and can depict it pretty well, and partly because drawing a writer writing would be boring, but mostly because by turning Akutagawa into a manga artist, he can add another layer to his own story by drawing parts of Akutagawa’s stories, in particular, those parts of Akutagawa’s stories that touch on the narrative arc of the writer’s life that Yamakawa is working to depict.

He also takes advantage of an omnipotent narrator to give the reader information about Akutagawa’s family, his upbringing, his friends, the other writers encountered throughout the book, current events and other information to make the story richer and more interesting. And then you have the main thread of Akutagawa living his life for the few months before (historical spoiler). So if you’ve been keeping track, you’ll notice that Yamakawa has put together a story with three main narrative devices, which you’d think would be pretty tricky. And it is, but this artist is nothing if not subtle and effective.

He employs thick solid panel borders for Akutagawa living his life, with outlines for people’s faces and other objects that might otherwise be bounded by his endless hatching. Then he takes a slightly thinner, wobblier line to contain Akutagawa’s stories, and allows his hatching to serve as the boundary between character and background more often. And then he uses a thicker line with rounded corners to let us know that we are stepping outside Akutagawa’s story to look at some extra facts that will make everything better.

At first, I didn’t notice the panel differences. Because I am mostly unobservant, but also because they really are subtle, especially the difference between Akutagawa’s life and his stories, which I’m sure is deliberate. So the first few pages, I spent flipping back and saying “Wait. What?” But once I caught onto this visual cue, it pulled me through the stories with nary a second of head-scratching, and I actually spent more than one moment admiring the genius of it.

The other initial stumble was the fact that the book uses pre-WWII Japanese orthography. So the obsolete kana character “wi” rears its ugly head all over the place, since apparently, where we now use “i” was “wi” back then. Also, “he” and “fu” replace “e” and “u” in other situations, and then there is the giant “tsu” where there should be a little “tsu”. It takes some getting used to if you’re not well versed in kyukanazukai (old orthography), which I am definitely not. Anything written before 1946 makes my head hurt.

But these stumbles are an important part of what Yamakawa is doing with this book, so I can’t complain too much. And the longer format is giving him a chance to make me really care about his characters. It’s working. I want to read the rest. I want to know what happens to poor, workaholic Akutagawa, and his long-suffering wife Fumi (who I at first took for his daughter because of course, she calls him “Father” in standard J-married couple style. I will never get used to that. It is just too creepy to call the person you have sex with “Father”). I want to know how his just-completed work will be received, and am hoping against hope that this will change the end he’s heading for. Even though this story was written long ago by Akutagawa himself, and I doubt Yamakawa is going to shake things up and give the long-dead author a happy ending. (Wait. Did I just reveal (historical spoiler)?)

PS. He posts pages on his blog when a new chapter is published in Comic Beam (who publish so much stuff I like: Atsushi Kaneko, Kaoru MoriTakako Shimura), so you can get regular peeks at where the story’s going.

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