First things first: I know Ken. We hang out when I am in Japan. He is a solid guy with a penchant for champagne. He also has these great yellow glasses that I am very jealous of and wish I could pull off. So I cannot claim total impartiality when it comes to his work. Just like discovering a particular creator is an asshat can put you off their work, knowing that an artist is actually a pretty great person who deserves all the successes they are given in life can color your reading of a text. That said, Henshin is pretty great and I feel confident I would say that even if I didn’t know Ken was also pretty great.
And lucky you, monolingual readers! This one has been translated into English and published by Image, so you can actually read it instead of fondly daydreaming about what it would be like to read it, as I’m sure you do with so many of the books I talk about here. (Like last week’s offering. Which someone should seriously publish in English. Come on, publishers!) And in English, you get the larger page size, so more space to enjoy Ken’s delightful manga-plus comic art style! As an aside, it’s interesting to see a manga brought over to North America as an American-style comic rather than as a manga in the usual sense of the word on this side of the ocean. And for this book, that feels like the better choice. Fans of “manga” and all the baggage that word carries with it will probably not be so interested in this collection of short stories. It definitely belongs of the graphic novel side of the fence, even as it uses manga devices to tell those stories.
The stories are not connected in any obvious way, but they feel right next to each other when you read through the book. The lead story “Enuji” (a clever play on the Japanese for “no good” and “uncle” that I’m very interested in seeing the English translation for) sets the tone for what follows. Na-chan arrives in town to stay with her aunt and uncle for a while, sullen and silent, while her uncle, eager to please chatters on and on. After he picks her up from the train station, they are driving home when he remembers he just has to make one stop. Na-chan waits for him in the car, fooling around with a teddy bear she bought earlier, and accidentally kicks open the glove box to reveal a gun. She stares at it shocked until her uncle comes running up chased by people with guns in amusement park costumes. This is just the first unexpected twist in this weird little piece, and Niimura pulls it off with aplomb.
Other stories feature similar twists, but none of them feel forced or unnatural. The unexpected feels more like little facts that were always there but that you simply did not know yet. It’s this unexpected, yet non-shocking weirdness that I really like about this book. The way a story can feel so grounded in reality and then go so suddenly, expectedly, and delightfully off the rails. A personal favourite, no doubt because of my own experiences living in the land of the rising sun, is “Uso wa Dame” (You Can’t Lie). A young detective works a strange case with his older mentor in which a customer at a little hole in the wall type restaurant abruptly explodes. Literally. Burns the place to the ground.
Questioning the suspects, the young detective has a flash of inspiration and gets them all bowls of gyudon. He compliments them on their use of chopsticks, mentions how wonderful it is that Japan has four seasons, until one of the suspects snaps and becomes a giant monster. Because he is a foreigner and has had enough of this bullshit. I honestly have no idea how Japanese people might react to this story. I feel like the majority wouldn’t really get it, although Niimura does a great job with the follow through and the explanation of why a foreigner might turn into a giant rage monster. But for me, and probably every other foreigner who has spent a chunk of their life living in Japan, it all rang so, so true. It only needs the word 国際的 to make it all one hundred percent. And of course, the young detective defeats the foreigner monster by telling it the truth: his Japanese is actually quite broken, he is super loud when talking with his friends in the metro. I laughed so hard reading this story.
While half of the book is taken up with this kind of fantasticalness, the other half is a more or less realistic-looking depiction of Niimura’s life, in particular, his obsession with the cat that comes round his place. These stories are done in a sketchier style, more pencils and rougher lines, than the other obviously fiction pieces, which have a cleaner line. In one, Niimura picks up cat poop outside his apartment, imagining it to be a secret sign or gift from the cat that hangs out around his apartment. In another, he details his struggles to come up with ideas for stories and get them approved by his editor. This switching back and forth between the more realistic pieces based on his own life and the super fantastical pieces with their twists and turns grounds the book and makes both kinds of stories feel fresher. They resonate more deeply than either would on its own, almost like one style was a palate cleanser for the other.
And although many of these stories are silly, fun romps, they are also unexpectedly moving. I found myself tearing up at where “V Sign” took me, and more than one story stayed in my brain long after I finished reading it, forcing me to think about the deeper meanings of it. I also loved how it all came full circle with “Keiwai” at the end, and the reappearance of Na-chan and her criminal uncle. It felt like the perfect way to end the book and pull these disparate stories together in an unexpected way.
Basically, everything about Henshin was unexpected for me. And this is the sort of book I love the most, the kind that can take me places I didn’t know were even places.
UPDATE: Ken’s coming to TCAF! So if you are/can be in Toronto May ninth and/or tenth, you should come and get a copy of Henshin and get Ken to sign it for you! He will because he is a totally nice guy!