As always, when my life grows too frantic with translation and interpretation and long plane trips across the ocean, it is my noodle-ly rambling about books that suffers. I’ve been reading books this last month (many of them very good!) (one of them deeply and frustratingly bad!) because I basically never stop reading books, but I haven’t gotten the chance to write about them. Because I’ve been herding Canadians for TCAF at Kaigai Manga Festa (I hope you stopped by and said hello!), and I’ve been powering through 16-hour days to meet a bunch of deadlines (to keep you lovers of Accel World and Naruto busy with things to read). And then I flew back across the ocean just in time to get chilly in Canada because I am a secret masochist. But the Canadians have been herded, deadlines have been met, and I am chilled to the bone, so it is time to talk about some of the books I have been reading!
Ano Ne is a sweet treat for a couple reasons. One is obviously that it is by Brain favourite Machiko Kyo. But really, the sweetest treat is that my thoughtful friend and well-known comics impresario picked these up for me in Kyoto when he was at the Manga Museum, and Kyo just happened to be signing there that day. So not only was he kind enough to buy me the two books that make up this story, he even got her to sign them for me. So everyone go follow him on Twitter or something in appreciation for his contributions to my reading life.
I didn’t really notice/understand this until I started reading the book and putting those pieces together, but the title is deliberately written in roman letters on the cover in such a way as to make the “o” small so it looks like a period. So when you look at the title in English, it looks more like “anne.” This is, of course, a direct reference to Anne Frank, and I say “of course” because this was written not long after Cocoon when Kyo is still pretty into thinking and writing about war. So it was only inevitable that she would turn her dreamy watercolors on the Holocaust.
The tagline on the obi of the first volume reads “tragic girl X dictator…a boy-meets-girl, boy-destroys-girl story” and surprisingly, that pretty much sums it up. Through the magic of storytelling, Kyo has Hanako and Taro, stand-ins for Anne Frank and Adolf Hitler, meet in an alternate reality, while they march down the paths noted in history in the regular reality. Mostly. Instead of Jews, we have Asians in the Netherlands being rounded up and shipped off to concentration camps.
When we meet her, Hanako is a carefree junior high girl, the most popular girl in school. She’s embarrassed by the gold star she has to wear that identifies her as Asian, but other than that, the looming crisis doesn’t really affect her cheerful nature and her dream of being an actress. Her older sister Mako is far more practical; when she gets a letter telling her to report for compulsory service, she knows she’ll be sent to prison or worse if she does. Fortunately, their father owns a mid-sized company that’s doing pretty well, so he has had the means and foresight to build a safe house for them in the unused space above his office. So the family packs up their things and slips away in the middle of the night to move into the safe house to wait out the war.
Given that this part of the story is based on Anne Frank, I’m not spoiling anything to say that they do not get their happy ending. And Kyo brings the same gentle brutality to depicting their journey from normal life to safe house to concentration camp that she did to the ever-worsening situation of the Okinawan school girls in Cocoon. But interspersed with this is the “boy-destroys-girl” world of the obi. Hanako has a diary. And when she opens it, she finds herself in a featureless white room with a boy, Taro, our Hitler stand-in. She’s locked in there with him and his tiny puppet people (a man, a woman and two children, all wearing crowns—a reference to the Dutch monarchy perhaps? The family he wanted but never got?), but she is without words. Taro takes out all his own frustrations on her, the abuse at the hands of his father, his mother’s inability to protect him, his thwarted desire to become an artist.
The story slips back and forth between Hanako’s reality during the Holocaust and the alternate reality, where she becomes Taro’s mute prisoner. As there so often is in Kyo’s work, there are elements of fantasy and an uncertainty about what’s real. Possibly the most effective of these is Hanako’s relentless, almost psychopathic cheer in the face of total devastation. There were a couple points where I found myself wondering if she was actually a monster.
She greets each new disaster with a smile, oblivious to the danger she and her family are actually in, and Mako seems to intuitively understand how crucial this is for Hanako, so she does whatever she can to allow Hanako to stay in her little bubble of joy. Which is why the ending is so heartwrenchingly effective. After all, we already know the story of Anne Frank does not turn out so great. But Kyo makes some stylistic choices that really make you feel how not great that actually was. Like, she makes you cry your damned eyes out over it.
I’ve said this a million times or so already, but Kyo is doing some incredible things in manga. The expressiveness of her linework, her ability to mix fantasy with reality in a way that evokes real emotion and thought, her uncanny use of warm lines and soft washes to make even the most horrific things seem both palatable and even more horrific deserve recognition on this side of the ocean too. With Ano Ne, she broke my damned heart all over again. I want her to get the chance to break yours too.