Wow, it sure has been a long time since I raved about something est em wrote. How could I be so remiss and deny you the pleasure of my gushing about yet another minimalist piece full of rich characters and thoughtful stories? Good thing I am here to make things right today.
Yeah, Ippo is everything you’d expect from est em. So if you don’t already like her, this book is probably not going to change your mind. But if you don’t already like her, that probably means that you’ve never read her because how could you not like her if you had? And Ippo is a pretty good place to start! Unless you’re looking for BL, in which case I’d turn you towards equus, mostly because wow, centaur sex. It exists on the printed page. If you’re not into equine-related BL, Tableau No. 20 is pretty good too. (Full disclosure: I translated that so of course I think it is pretty good.)
I am so glad editors are finally giving em a chance with longer form stories, first with Golondrina and now with Ippo. Obviously, I am a fan of her short stories, but with a whole book and more to tell a single story, she gets to stay with the same characters and really dig deep, revealing their personalities and their lives all onion-peeling style. And while Golondrina is very story-oriented, although still giving us interesting and nuanced characters, Ippo is pretty much entirely character driven (or at least at this stage it is. But this is only Book One, so she could be slowly turning us towards an overarching story) and really benefits from the easy pace an entire book allows.
The star of this leisurely ride through the world of custom-made shoes is Ayumu Ichijo, who has been pretty into shoes ever since he was a baby. It helps that his Italian-immigrant grandfather is a shoemaker from a very famous Italian shoemaking family. So little Ayumu grows up watching his grandfather make magic, turning leather into beautiful shoes. But then his grandmother dies and his grandfather closes up the shop to move back to Italy. The grandfather’s grief is so beautifully and simply expressed in four panels when he makes his dead wife shoes to be buried in. This incredibly minimal sequence is one of the most poignant things I have read in a very long time, and I still tear up thinking of it.
So after Ayumu’s grandfather is back in Italy, young Ayumu shows up on his doorstep. His parents are getting divorced and he wants to stay with his grandfather. He apprentices at his grandfather’s family shop and becomes a master shoemaker before returning to Japan as a young adult to start his own shoemaking business. And that’s where the rest of the book flows from. The remaining chapters are dedicated to Ayumu and his shoes. So many shoes. Seriously. If you are into comic-book feet, you should probably pick this one up.
At first, it has an episodic feel to it, like a shoe customer of the week kind of thing, but although em devotes more than a few panels to the customers who come to buy shoes from Ayumu and the circumstances that brought them to this place (hint: there is often sadness), she pushes Ayumu along steadily but surely through his own growth and his own story, so the episodic feel of the first couple of chapters is gone by the end of the book, which I was glad for. Although I like reading the interactions between Ayumu and his clients, there are only so many chapters of hey this person overcame sadness with a pair of 3000-dollar shoes. As a person who will never have thousands of dollars to spend on a pair of shoes, I do not relate to this as a method of overcoming sadness.
This focus on the way a piece of clothing can change your mindset and/or your life actually made me think of Order Meido by ancou running in Erotics F. Obviously, there is the connection of both stories having custom-made clothing at their centres, but the clothing is merely a device to allow the characters to reflect on their lives and find a new path forward. It’s a way to allow them to externalize acceptance of their own selves.
And it’s an interesting premise. As someone who likes clothing more than I probably should and has perhaps an addiction to handbags, I completely relate to that idea of changing your costume to change yourself. It’s kind of a twist on that whole fake it until you believe it idea of getting self-confidence. Clothes are costumes we use to signal to the world, but more importantly to ourselves, the person we are or the person we wish we were. And especially in Ippo, these people are getting new shoes to take the first step on a new path in life, to become a new person. Lots of symbolic step-taking in these pages.
The art is as always beautiful and understated and amazeballs. Like when Ayumu is meditating on what it means to make shoes, and there is this perfect panel of a baby’s foot as he remembers his own first steps. Even though there is basically nothing other than a baby’s foot in the panel, it’s so full of a late summer afternoon light to me. It just feels so nostalgic in that really good, washed out, seventies photo kind of way. The book is full of these kinds of perfect moments, a kind of moment that I haven’t really noticed in her other books, and one that I think can come about now because the full-length piece really pushes the reader deep into the characters.
I find it pretty impressive that she is working on something as contemplative as Ippo alongside the energetic and somewhat headstrong Golondrina. I love that these both exist in her mind and people are paying her to put them on paper for me to enjoy. So yes, yes, I will gush about Ippo too and continue to preach the gospel of est em until more/all of her work is published in English and everyone loves her the way that I do so that people will keep paying her to draw all these incredible worlds. So you know, consider yourself warned.