New York De Kangaechu: Akino Kondoh

IMG_4744After my months of peaceful silence up on the mountain on Cat Island, so many days of just me and the cats and whatever terrifyingly large spider decided to show up and give me seven to twelve heart attacks that day, I decided to jump across the ocean and a time zone to have an actual vacation in Singapore. For those of you who have jobs where you go to a specific place everyday and someone pays you to be there for a certain number of hours, the idea of an actual vacation may seem par for the course.

But for a workaholic freelancer like me, a certain portion of my day always ends up being work stuff, even when I’m travelling. In fact, I travel more often because I know I can work while I am away, so I’m not actually losing any income because I decided to run off to Europe or wherever. Also, freelancing (at least the way I do it) is a constant hustle. The lack of job stability is the price you pay for the freedom to run away to Cat Island for two months. But I decided if I was going to go all the way to Singapore, I should spend that time there in Singapore. And I did! And it was great! I understand why people take vacations now!

And then I came back to Tokyo to jump headfirst into busy worktimes interpreting for the many (most ever!) Canadian artists who came to show with TCAF at Kaigai Manga Festa and Design Festa this year. And also to translating books. A lot of books! In between events with Canadians and meetings with J-artists! So in the first few days I was back, I used up all the relaxation points I earned vacationing in Singapore. Now, less than a month later, I am thinking so fondly of those sweet, sweaty days and dreaming of another vacation. Fortunately, however, I always have books to sweep me away onto momentary mini-vacations.

New York De Kangaechu is weirdly like a vacation, in more than just the creation of a fictional mental landscape sense. Unlike her previous (and sadly too infrequent) manga outings, this is a collection of short, autobio pieces about her life as an expat in New York. Kondoh manages to get to the heart of what makes a place a place in a few cosy pen strokes, so New York ends up feeling like a very personal tour of the city from a close friend. At the start of the book, she has been living in New York for three or so years, not so long that she can’t remember what it felt like to not live there, but long enough to be pretty comfortable with life in the city. The chapters are very short—only two pages each—which in a lesser artist’s hands might feel incomplete or lacking in some way, but Kondoh manages to dig down to the point in mere panels to present one succinct observation or another about life abroad as a young Japanese woman.

IMG_4751What fascinated me was how much I could relate to her experiences in New York, despite my own history as a non-Japanese woman who has actually never been to New York. (I’ve never even changed planes there.) Stories about how she can concentrate in noisy public places because all the English everyone is speaking is just white noise unless she actively listens to it, the sudden realization that her Japanese is slowly turning into garbage, the moment when she tries to tell a funny story to an American friend only to realize that all of the context is Japanese and meaningless/unfunny to an American—flip any one of these scenarios and I’ve had the exact same experience in English vs Japanese. The enjoyment in reading them isn’t simply the fact that I relate so hard to them; it’s how easily Kondoh manages to capture the feeling involved with a simple arched eyebrow and a well-placed drop of sweat.

IMG_4745Although her art has always had crisp lines with sharp contrasts between blacks and whites, I feel like in Kangaechu, Kondoh’s pared her style down even further into a minimalist perfection. For a story manga, maybe this would be too minimalist, but for a collection of autobiographical two-page stories of fleeting thoughts and impressions, it is exactly perfect. Just the right amount of detail to convey the essential information and the feeling of the moment, but not enough to keep you from slipping through each chapter like a passing thought, like you are right there with her.

IMG_4747Honestly, I have gushed about Kondoh before, and I will gush about her again now. Her linework is so smooth and expressive, and yet seems so dashed off and easy. I have no idea how she pulls this heroic feat off, but it creates a weirdly comfortable atmosphere, like you as the reader are her best J-friend she is telling all these New York stories to. Also, the book is bound so beautifully. Sections are sewn together, rather than glued to a cover, so the whole thing lies flat when you read it. Basically, New York De Kangaechu makes me glad all over that Kondoh is doing new manga again these days. Her style is evolving in the most beautiful, effortless-seeming way, and between this and A-ko-san no Koibito, we are spoiled with her artful riches.  

(Travelling apologies as always for terrible photos taken with my phone. You get the idea, though, right?)

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