Bokura no Manga: Kazumasa Maeda (ed.)

I think I can say that we were all pretty stricken by the tragedy of the earthquake followed by tsunami followed by nuclear disaster in northern Japan last March. (Except jackass racists, who took the opportunity to say horrible racist things, but jackass racists are not a part of any version of “all of us” that I carry around in my head.) And a lot of us in and outside of Japan were looking for something that we could do, some way we could help, make things better, even if only a little bit. We weren’t looking to do anything but help people in the affected areas get back on their feet after suffering such tremendous loss, but these feelings of sadness tinged with helplessness resulted in some incredible art and amazing performances.

In Toronto, there was the Toronto to Japan movement, with people in the city recording their own messages of support for people in Japan (here’s mine!), culminating in the Hope Blossoms event where Canadian literati turned out in force to lend their voices to fundraising efforts. Artists of the drawing kind got together to draw and sign some great art for auction at the Artists Help Japan event. And there was more, I just can’t find the links for everything now. But basically, artists all over town were doing what they could, namely, make art. 

It was no different in Japan, with things like the Waseda charity anthology Ruptured Fiction(s) of the Earthquake, to which a wide variety of authors donated short stories and an equally wide variety of translators (including yours truly) donated translations of those stories. When faced with a disaster so enormous as to be unbelievable, all we can do is turn to the things we know, no matter how small those things might feel in the face of the monster. This is the starting point for the manga anthology Bokura no Manga, a collection of short stories by twenty-six artists, including personal favourite est em. As more than one of the artists gives a variation of in their blurb at the end of their piece, “When I don’t know what else to do, I draw manga.”

Given that this is the mindset these pieces were drawn from, it’s not surprise that the majority are melancholy in tone, sweet, thoughtful, and occasionally heartbreaking. But all this with the constant undercurrent of hope, of strength. And I know this sounds like a made-for-TV movie, but the cumulative effect of these four hundred plus pages is such that I tear up just thinking about it.

Only one story deals with the disaster in a more or less direct fashion. “Mighty Topio” by Miki Tori is obviously a nod to Astro Boy and Tezuka, with its scientist in the middle of creating his incredible humanoid robot just when the earthquake happens, leaving his robot buried in the rubble. But in a delightfully traditional twist, the yokai (Japanese monsters and spirits) decide to inhabit the lifeless robot to do what they can for the country that gave them life (“We exist thanks to the power of the human imagination, the fear and respect that they have for us.”) and take on the overwhelming task of cleaning up after the disaster.

The rest of the stories are more roundabout in addressing the central theme of this volume. In one of my favourites, “Make Me Your Girl” by Tomoko Yamashita, two longtime friends have a picnic lunch in the park. One is about to get married and the other wishes that the two of them could be together forever. But not in a sexual way (or at least not overtly). Just that their lives are about to change completely and she is not totally on board with that.

Panels from "Make Me Your Girl"

Or in Ranjo Miyake’s “Usagi no Kimochi” (The Soul of a Rabbit), the people around the young protagonist make up stories to help her deal with the harder parts of life, like pretending to have had a great time at the dentist and taking on the persona of a rabbit to really enjoy those veg. She becomes a demon so enormous that she carries her village on her back when she goes off to university.

Then there’s “Watashi no Kiraina Uchi no Koto” (The Universe I Hate) meeting all my science nerd needs with an engaging discussion of multiverses, “Watashi to Ojisan” (Me and the Old Man) which surprised me by centering on the band Pinback, a delightful story about Noah of ark fame at the onsen from Mari Yamazaki of Thermae Roma fame, “So wo Iotosu wa Ashita” (The Arrow to Shoot That Down Tomorrow) in which a bow-toting girl wishes for nothing more than an arrow to shoot, and of course, the hilarious “Mijika na Dotei Karuta” (Up-close and Personal Virgin Cards) which is basically a series of Karuta cards enumerating the various issues of being a male virgin. And much, much more! So many things to read!

Most of the stories are so roundabout like this that if you read them in a separate volume, you wouldn’t connect them to the disaster. But pulled together in one volume, they say so much, they offer up all of the complex emotions that the artists, and us readers, have in relation to the triple-headed hydra and the ongoing reconstruction. These are beautiful one-shots capturing what is best about the short story form, whether in graphic art or just plain text form: a moment, an emotion, a singular event. And from this, we get all the rest.

The project originally started out as an iTunes app last summer, and grew into this collection. It’s already gone into a second printing, having come out a couple weeks ago, so I feel like high fives are definitely in order. All the proceeds after expenses go to three different charities focusing on children in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, the three hardest-hit areas. And all the artists and people involved in the book donated their time and hard work, so the expenses are basically the paper to print the books on. So if you have some spare cash and you want to read some thought-provoking stories, might I suggest you support this amazing effort by these incredible artists? You’ll get the warm glow that comes from helping people who need it, plus the delight of new things to read. Everybody wins!

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