You guys! How come no one told me about this book? I feel like I am the last person to the party and everyone’s walking out the door just as I’m walking in. I picked this up on the strength of the cover alone (a frequently used book buying method; don’t let anyone tell you not to judge a book by its cover) although I was a little apprehensive about it. Because I have seen covers that have this kind of more artistic style, but then the manga inside is all sharp lines and standard style. Plus, given the young face looking a bit dirtied up against that knife, I worried that it might end up being some children battling it out in an apocalyptic future. And sure, I could’ve read the jacket to find out if either of these concerns would prove to be true, but I try not to read book jackets. I like to be surprised by stories.
And this story surprised me in many pleasant ways and got me all excited and ready to cry for its publication in English (to be translated by me, obviously). But before I came here to rant and rave, I wanted to learn more about this incredible artist who I have never heard of before, so naturally I turned to Google. And discovered that this book was published in English. Nearly four years ago. And it won a major Japanese manga award. And Shirai is the woman behind Wombs, which was serialized in IKKI and is one of those series I always see in the bookstore and wonder if I should pick up before getting distracted by something shinier. So really, I should have already read Tenkensai when it was first published as a book in 2008. (It started life as a series of doujinshi she sold herself at doujin events.) I blame the fact that it took me nearly six years to discover it on all of my book friends who neglected to mention its existence to me. (You know who you are.)
The story is both deeply complicated and impressively simple. The simple version: boy meets girl, boy hires girl to work for him, girl disappears, boy goes to save her. The complicated version: Kishima works for the Sakamoto-gumi, a small company run by Manaka that does repair work on building exteriors. They build these enormous scaffoldings out of bamboo, which are really beautifully illustrated and play a surprisingly important role in the story. Kishima’s not afraid of heights at all, which is what makes her so useful as an employee in Manaka’s eyes. It helps that she’s also a hard worker. But it turns out her lack of fear of heights is really just a reaction to a fear of the ground and the enormous snakes that come for her while she’s on it. Yeah, giant snakes. I told you it was complicated.
The whole thing takes place in this incredible alternate Japan that’s all in Shirai’s head. The story is based on the legend of Yamato no Orochi, in which the Japanese god Susanoo slays the woman-eating, eight-headed, snake monster thing. But that is pretty much the only thing Tenkensai has in common with reality. In Shirai’s Japan, a devastating “dirty war” has basically destroyed the country, and even though the war is long over by the time the story starts, much of the country is still polluted by the dirty part of it. The pollution causes people to fall ill with a disease simply called “fukashi”, named from the fact that the poison is invisible (“fukashi” in Japanese). And at some point, with all the warring and poisoning, some old legend got all mixed up and now the Tenkensai festival is held across the country every year, reenacting the sacrifice of Princess Kushinada to the evil snake monster, so that they can all enjoy health and happiness for another year. Except in one outlying village, still surrounded by polluted lands, the sacrifice is not just a reenactment. Dum dum dum!
You see a lot of festivals like this in Japan, maybe not with the actual sacrifice of a girl to a snake monster, but you do have the selection and ritual purification of a girl followed by her being paraded through town on a palanquin, so the festival part isn’t much of a stretch. But the way Shirai blends actual Japanese culture with her own vision of the future, re-interpreting the culture she borrows along the way, is exactly what makes this story so engaging, even when it’s difficult to follow, as it is when she gets a little carried away with pushing her characters through the world she’s created and doesn’t give the reader enough space to digest it all. But all the details of this world are so gorgeous and rich that I really wanted to savour them and drink every second of every panel in.
It doesn’t hurt that she’s backing up this incredible storytelling with some seriously amazing art. All brushwork and ink washes, it basically knocked me over on my butt from the first page. And it gets better and better as the story gets more and more fantastical. Shirai lets her lines get looser or tighter depending on how close to the real world a given scene is. And Kishima has these dreams of falling and sinking, and they are just fluttering ribbons of ink. I spent a lot of time just being blown away by how much control she has over her lines with those brushes. In addition to all the time I spent cooing, “So pretty” as I lingered forever on each panel.
There’s basically no reason for everyone not to be reading this. Seriously. It is great. It is beautiful. It is available in Japanese and English. Go buy it. Buy both versions. Let’s make sure this woman gets to keep making her beautiful comics. So that I can read them. (It always comes back to my selfishness.)