So remember how a couple weeks ago I was all sad and regretful that I didn’t pick up Haruko Ichikawa’s second book when I grabbed her first one, Mushi to Uta, because I enjoyed Mushi just so much? One of the lovely things about having friends who also love comics and who happen to have business in Japan at the same time as you do is that they pick up comics that you might have missed and then you get to borrow them. And it is all a pleasant surprise.
Ichikawa’s first book was pretty much the farthest thing from my mind though when I went to The Beguiling to pick up a stack of books to study up on our festival guests (who were finally announced so I can stop worrying about blurting the big secret out when I’ve had one or two too many to drink) (because holy smokes! We have some amazing guests and you should definitely come to the festival and see them talk about their books because it will basically be amazeballs). But as I was picking through the boxes of stock recently arrived from Japan, a certain comics impresario pulled 25 Ji no Vacances out of another box and I gasped.
It wasn’t as if he was somehow precognitively aware that I would love Mushi to Uta and thus picked up the second volume to surprise me with upon our return to Canada. No, he just wanted to get one of the Moomin stamps when we visited the Kodansha bookstore. Which is fair. I also bought extra books to get the Moomin stamp that Kodansha was dangling in front of us like a tiny Finnish carrot.
So I took 25 Ji no Vacances home with me, in a bag heavy with work-related manga, and tucked into it the second I got the chance, which turned out to be on a very tiny plane headed to a very northern part of the province I live in. A plane so tiny that there was no toilet on board and the back row was like that of a city bus: just one long row with some sad sucker stuck sitting in the middle seat where the aisle ends. And in an effort to avoid the cackling woman a few seats over who insisted on talking to anyone within earshot (and given how tiny the plane was, we were all within earshot), I turned towards the window and buried my nose in strange stories of strange changes.
The stories in this collection run a bit longer than those in Mushi to Uta, like smart editors are giving her the longer rope she needs to really delve into her characters. The title story takes up the first half of the book, letting the reader really get to know Hime, the young and talented scientist, and Kotaro, the brother twelve years her junior. Once again, Ichikawa is focussing on metamorphoses as Hime reveals to her slightly estranged brother the really, really weird change that has taken place within her.
I find that at the start of every one of Ichikawa’s stories, I am really confused and slightly lost as I try to figure out just who is who and what is going on. Which is both annoying and endearing. I love the fact that she doesn’t mollycoddle her readers. She creates a world and drops you into it, leaving you to sort through the details, in the process creating works that really want to be re-read and offer even more treasures when you give them that extra time. “25 Ji no Vacances” starts in the past, not longer after Kotaro has had an accident which has turned him into a monster, according to the kids at school. But we quickly jump ahead many years into the future to a time when Hime is the assistant director of a marine biology lab that is being shut down for lack of funding. Kotaro is now a photographer who travels the world in search of weird creatures, and Hime lures him to one of her lab’s old research posts on the coast with the promise of the weirdest creature he has ever seen.
Which turns out to be her, a fact he realizes when she unscrews her face and some deep-sea, bioluminescent, sentient shellfish-type creatures come swirling out. Yeah. Ichikawa offers up a detailed, pseudo-scientific explanation of how she came to have no internal organs and turn into a pearl-plated shell of human that incubates rare shellfish, which is a nice bit of world-building. And I appreciate the effort, but at the same time, the end result of the experiment is so incredibly implausible that no matter what explanation is offered up, there is just no way. This comes up in nearly all of her stories, the completely outrageous lifeform or metamorphosis and the science-based explanation of how it happened. It does offer a certain depth to the changes she depicts, but I almost wish she just would just let the changes speak for themselves. This thing happened and here are the consequences. Because it is the consequences that make the story in the end.
“Pandora” might be the one story where she doesn’t give us an explanation like this. A group of new students arrive at a prestigious girls’ academy on a moon of Saturn ostensibly to learn microbiology and other sciences that will aid them in searching for microbes on Saturn for use in medicine and other human endeavours. But it’s rumoured among the girls that it’s actually a finishing school to churn out perfect wives for the men who are the real scientists working on Saturn. And of course, because it is a story by Ichikawa, it is neither of these things; the school’s purpose is something far more outrageous and sad.
The final story is the saddest in a way, one of those stories in which the protagonist can never go home. Except, you know, home is the moon and he is the last of his people. But he lives in a remote village in the north where he is well-liked by everyone in the village. There’s a lot of isolation in the stories in this book, people different from those around them either by birth or by accident who are trying to find a way to be a part of the world they are stuck in. And somehow, they manage to find that one person who is separate in the same way that they are. As in her previous collection, it is the characters and their relatability that makes these stories work, even when they threaten to unravel from too ambitious a premise.