I cannot for the life of me remember where I first came across Yoko Kondo’s work. But her name is so familiar to me, as is her style, so I’m sure I have read other works by her. And yet nothing in her bibliography sounds familiar to me. Did I dream that I read Yoko Kondo? Is my subconscious just latching onto the “Kondo” part of the equation and reaching over to Akino? Whatever it is, it’s driving me crazy.
And if I had never borrowed this book from my friends at my favourite comic store, I would not be dealing with this itchy brain, this tip of the tongue feeling. So for once I say, curse you, Beguiling! Curse you for bringing to the forefront of my brain this half-remembered memory! (But thanks for lending me this book. It was pretty good.)
An adaptation of the 1946 story by Ango Sakaguchi, Senso to Hitori no Onna tells the story of, well, one woman and the war. (Yes, that is what the title translates to. In fact, you can find the original story in translation by Lane Dunlop.) It was also made into a terrible-looking movie so if you are looking for the same story in several media, this might be a good choice for you. The titular woman never gets a name and the narrative voice shifts almost too fluidly between her, Nomura, the man she lives with, and some omnipotent narrator. And even when she is the narrator, she seems distanced, which manages to make the shifts in narrative voice work better than they otherwise might. Of course, the story being told in Japanese helps with those shifts. No grammatical need for a clearly defined subject in each sentence gives authors a lot of grey space to work in.
The woman was, of course, wanton, as I’m pretty sure all women from the WWII era were (at least judging from what I’ve seen in books anyway). Before the war started, she worked as a prostitute in Yoshiwara until a kindly patron bought her a bar to run. (Again, from what I’ve seen in books, this is how all prostitutes and geisha finish their careers.) But once the war started, she was quick to realize that single ladies were in a precarious position and so she struck up a bargain with one of her regulars (all of whom she slept with, of course). Together with him, she watches the planes bombing Tokyo from their tiny bomb shelter.
Even though she is terrified by these bombings, she is also in love with them. They bring an edge to her now suburban life. She watches the fire rain down from the sky in awe, she sexes her fake husband up in the shelter. It’s a very contained story, taking part almost entirely in the house and the yard, with the occasional trips outside this tiny domestic sphere. Still, you see so much of Tokyo and of Japan during the war, which is definitely part of the appeal of the book. You see the petty cop, taking advantage of the power granted to him by his position to hassle women for wearing the wrong kind of clothes (women were supposed to wear pants called “monpe” instead of skirts or kimono so they would be able to flee more easily during an air strike), you see the queues for rationed food, you see the fires raging across Tokyo, destroying all the houses in a given neighbourhood.
This book is intensely domestic, both in the terms of taking place entirely within Japan and in terms of the domestic sphere of the home. The war is only ever shown as something affecting civilians, and the enemy is never given a face. When rumours of the end of the war spread like the fires from the bombs, the local women gather in groups to wonder aloud whether it is true that the Americans will rape them all. The men sigh that the best they can hope for is a quick death once the Americans arrive.
Kondo’s style compliments this domestic focus somehow. There’s an artlessness, a kind of naivete to her thin lines and simple backgrounds that makes the story seem both more intimate and distanced at the same time. Much like she shifts the narrative voice, she shifts the artistic voice so that you feel closer to and further from the woman. The simplicity of her style reminds me a bit of Susumu Higa. There’s a similar tendency to let the line tell the story and a similar skillful awkwardness in both of their styles, although Kondo’s lines tend to be rounder and have a softness that Higa’s don’t. Kondo also uses ink and brushwork every so often, usually to depict attacks from above and the fires these attacks leave behind. But the fact that both Kondo and Higa tell stories of domesticity in war probably helps me draw the connection between them.
Reading the manga version of this story has got me curious about the original. The story here is on the critical side of the war, pointing out the various pettinesses of officials and small harms in addition to the larger damage caused, and it was published only a year after the war ended. It makes me curious about the author and about the actual climate in Japan at this time, that a story which is openly critical of the war could have been published. It does not, however, make me curious about the movie. Did you see that trailer? Yikes.