This is one of those books that I spend half of my life in Japan for, something I would have never found if I was just ordering things online, a book that makes a good argument all by itself for the importance of actual physical bookstores. Because I’d never heard of Nagabe, never seen this title anywhere online before, but when I wandered into the bookstore near my house that is for some reason also a stationery store and a DVD store, I saw Totsukuni sitting there on the shelf, and I was simply intrigued. The horned black caped character, the little girl in white, the title in roman letters (which I thought was perhaps Icelandic, but which turns out to be the name of an Irish song), it was strangely appealing. And although I resisted at first (who is this Nagabe? I asked myself doubtfully), the possible Scandinavian influence won me over. (I think Scandinavia is on the verge of booming here? At any rate, there’s a sweets place called “Fika” now.)
And after this chance meeting, I am one hundred percent in love! I’m waiting far too eagerly for book two in this series, even though the splash page at the end of book one informs me that book two will not be available until September. But friends! I cannot wait that long! Totsukuni is beautiful and weird and like nothing I’ve ever read before. It’s a fairytale, in the old school style, a scary and entertaining cautionary tale featuring an adorable child faced with evil and impending doom.
A little girl wakes up on a stump in the woods, one oversized rubber boot slipping from her feet to the floor of the forest around here. After realizing she fell asleep, she tells herself that she has to get back before “Sensei” notices she’s gone out by herself. But of course, Sensei has already noticed and come to find her. We slowly learn just how this enormous, horned whoever has come to be in charge of this little human-looking girl, and Nagabe really nails the pacing on this, offering the reader just enough information to keep you reading, but not so much that it ever feels pushy or like an info dump. I was actually impressed with how natural it feels. Everything comes at the time it should. Things reach an uncomfortable climax after we have gotten to know the girl and her guardian, so the tension feels earned in every way, and the stakes actually feel real.
I’m reluctant to give away any of the story, not because knowing the details would detract from the larger impact, but because, like so many stories before this one, I was so delighted and impressed by going into it knowing nothing that I don’t want to take that away from any other reader. A good story doesn’t rely on reveals to be good, but there is a certain magic in reading something for the first time.
The art is so perfect to accompany a would-be fairytale like this story. A little sketchy, a little wood-cut-y, a little undefined. Sensei’s face is mostly just a black beak with white eyes in it. And Shiva is identifiable as a little girl, but lacks any other real defining characteristics; she is an everygirl, the star of all the fairy tales. Nagabe’s only just started as a manga artist, but they already have a real understanding of their craft and visual storytelling. There are so many striking sequences that compliment and go beyond the text accompanying the pages. Like the wordless page of Shiva confronted with the threat of soldiers.
And in true fairytale form, Totsukuni is trying to communicate something real and very this-worldly. Nagabe outlines the origins of othering essentially, in this tale of two countries, one in and one out, and tries to peel back the layers on what happens when a group of people is made out to be the bad guys based on stories and rumors and handed-down “wisdom”. The “in” people don’t know why the “out” people are bad exactly. The out people are cursed, though. No matter what they look like, what they say, what they do, we shouldn’t get too close to them. We have to keep them away, kill them to protect ourselves and our families. They’re not like us.
But of course, they are. They have tea parties and romp in the woods and chop firewood and all the other things we do. After reading Totsukuni, I wanted to run right out and buy everything by this strange manga artist I’d never heard of before, so I started digging around for their stuff. And so I learned they are also a BL artist. Of course. Honestly, I’m not trying to grump about anyone coming up in different genres of manga, but the openness of BL, the looseness of the genre seems to offer a place for all the manga artists who maybe don’t fit in anywhere else, the ones who are doing really weird or unique work. So many of the artists I love who work in mainstream manga now came up through BL.
But it seems that although Nagabe is also working in BL, they are still a baby artist in that genre as well. Their first tanko isn’t actually out until the end of this month, by which time I will be back in Canada, far away from the stationery/DVD/bookstore on the corner. And this is where the internet comes to the rescue! Now that I have had my chance encounter with an unknown artist, I can order online and have new books delivered to me in the icy tundras. Which I guess is a good argument for the existence of online bookstores? Uh, maybe just a good argument for all bookstores of all kinds. Yes. More bookstores, please. More books. More Nagabe. September is so far away.