Oof, the days do run away, all wild horses over the hills. You may have noticed that my brain has been strangely silent these many days, that the battles with books have suddenly disappeared. Despite my brain’s desire to continue battling the books, a desire that is stronger than ever, it was forced to contend with things even more serious than books, real-world stuff like long-distance hospital visits. And although I like to think my brain and I are good at concentrating on more than one thing at a time, the fact is when it comes to people you love in hospital, your ability to concentrate on anything other than that person is dramatically diminished. But the hospitalizee is in a better place now, letting my brain get back to doing what it does best: reading!
I came across Shizuka Nakano where I come across pretty much all interesting, unknown-to-me artists: Nakano. I feel like there is some kind of destiny or cosmic something or other to discovering an artist named Nakano in a place called Nakano. Or it might just have been inevitable given how common the name Nakano is. In any case, when I saw her stylized lines and frequent omission of outlines so reminiscent of the sixties for me and so very removed from anything I have seen in the Japanese manga world, I knew I would have to pick up one of the books; all that was left to decide was which one.
I ended up plucking Shisei from the shelf because of the sneaky style of the cover and because the first story is called “The Catcher in the Chocolate” and who wouldn’t want to know just what that was about? Clearly a reference to The Catcher in the Rye, but would it just be a play on the title or would the story be some sort of Holden Caulfield saga but with chocolate? Not that I am so in love with Holden Caulfield (for the record, unsurprisingly, I have issues with the way the navel-gazing coming-of-age story of a boy is heralded as a classic while similar navel-gazing involving girls is dismissed as chick stuff) (which is not to say, that I did not enjoy Catcher and find it worth reading), but the idea of a Japanese manga artist taking off from there and throwing in some chocolate seemed intriguing.
In a complete not shocking turn of events, the two stories have little in common. Holden wants to catch kids running off a cliff, the dentist protagonist of “The Catcher in the Chocolate” wants to treat their cavities. But those darned kids keep eating chocolate and getting more cavities! The dentist is sad at first, but then realizes he can help them by treating their cavities. Except that helping them equals hurting them. It’s a cute story with the emphasis more on style and art than on any deep storytelling. Which was fine with me because I really like the style and art. Nakano’s work has a distinct retro look to it and I keep feeling like the names of artists working in a similar style forty years ago are on the tip of my tongue.
But there’s a freshness to her co-opting this retro style that comes from the fact that she’s using it to tell manga stories. The elements of manga storytelling and Japanese perspective are all here, but the art has this old-school western feel and is littered with references to western culture and language. English and French words pepper the pages, and characters come with names like Larry and Philip. It’s one of those comics that doesn’t know what shelf of the bookstore it would be comfortable on.
Not all the stories are as airy as “The Catcher in the Chocolate”. The title story “Shisei” is one of the longer pieces in the collection, focussing on a boy whose hobby is making what I thought of as Lite Brite pages, carefully poking holes in black construction paper to create constellations. Naturally, with such an obviously nerdy hobby, he is bullied mercilessly by kids at school and his own older, juvenile delinquent brother. But his brother has a friend who starts coming by the house regularly and takes an interest in him. The friend is actually an old-school tattoo artist (the ones who hammer the ink under your skin with a special tool) (that link is to a video that may make you squeamish if you do not like seeing people getting tattooed) and Nakano draws some interesting lines between tattoos, family, and constellations.
For me, Nakano is at her best when she brings her retro style to a retro/ancient story. “Menko” is told like a fairytale: a man finds a fox trapped and injured in the mountains, treats its wounds and sets it free, only to find that it is no ordinary fox. It speaks to him, which freaks him out and he runs away. When he tells the tale to the people in his village, they naturally all think he’s a nutbar, but then that night, he is visited by a vision of his future wife, courtesy of the fox. It seems like it’s going to be a straightforward rewarded-for-your-kindness kind of thing, but then the son born of the union of this man and this woman goes asking questions and it turns out that’s not the end of the story.
Shisei is the kind of manga that will never be published in English simply because it had the misfortune of being written by a Japanese artist and not having a typical “manga” look to it. It’s also the kind of thing I want to see more of in English, so we can stop equating manga with big eyes and panty shots. So, um, publishers, if you’re reading this, how about hiring me to translate some of Shizuka Nakano’s work?