Zassou-tachi yo Taishi wo Idake: Aoi Ikebe

Zassou_IkebeYes, as promised, the second in my hat trick of new books by favourite artists! I have thoughts on Fumi Fumiko’s latest that will have to wait for another day. But have no fear! Like John Wick, they will come whether you like it or not. But in these tumultuous times when it seems like the world is getting more horrible every time you check Twitter, what I need is a reminder that everything is not awful. And while Fumi’s Joso Danshi to Menhera Ojisan is good and interesting and worth reading and all that, it’s also full of people being awful, not necessarily for awful reasons, but just because they are human, and sometimes, human beings don’t get things right even when their intentions are in a good place. Zassou-tachi is untouched by awful things. It is the book you need to soothe your soul when the onslaught of awful becomes too much for you.

The title is a twist on the Japanese saying “Boys, be ambitious (shounen yo taishi wo idake), which it turns out was originally said in English by this old American guy and then translated into Japanese, so that strict teachers and fretful mothers could exhort generations of Japanese schoolboys to get their shit together. I’ve heard and seen this expression any number of times in my many years in Japan, but I always assumed it was some holdover from the militaristic World War II culture that somehow managed to make it into the modern era. I pictured drill sergeants shouting it as they sent young men and boys off on kamikaze missions or something. It sounds ominously euphemistic for “go die for the emperor”, and I never understood why it was still in use these days. Until reading this book! I started googling the saying for a little insight into why Ikebe would use it as a springboard for her own title, and I stumbled upon the weird world of a white man founding a university in Hokkaido.

But given that Ikebe is not writing about boys, but a group of high school girls, she changes “boys” to “weeds”, and voilà! The perfect title is born. Suddenly, it’s evocative in a way that the original saying isn’t, the idea of the girls featured on the cover as weeds, pushing their way up through gaps in the concrete, trying to find their own way forward, figure themselves out. Because they are in high school, and that is pretty much the deal when you’re in high school. But this is also a common theme in Ikebe’s work, people at a certain time in their life, trying their best to carve out their own place in this world. Ichie in Tsukuroitatsu Hito has stepped into her grandmother’s shoes, but finds that they pinch her feet, so she tries to stretch them out into something uniquely her own. Princess Maison’s Numagoe is determined to find a literal place of her own in the form of a condo. Ikebe looks for her stories in people striving towards something more, but that more always feels attainable if you’re willing to put in the work. Train_Ikebe

The five stories here could each be read on their own, and in fact, I read the second one when it was first published in Feel Young, and I didn’t even realize it wasn’t a one-shot until I came across it in the middle of the tankobon. But the chapters together do form a larger, coherent narrative, telling the story of five girls attending high school somewhere in Kansai (judging from the dialect the girls use) and how they find and save each other from floundering alone through the muddy mess of adolescence. Yes, it’s sweet as hell and thoughtful in a way I’ve come to expect from Ikebe.

The first chapter focusses on Gan-chan, who turns out to be something like the central pillar of the book, popping up in different ways in the stories of the other girls. She is excessively concerned about what she perceives as her overly thick eyebrows, a concern which leads her to first cut a fringe to cover them at the suggestion of her best friend Hi-chan. But of course, in the way of these things, she cuts them way too short and crooked, so for the rest of the book, she has this weird patch of hair sticking up around her forehead. In a later story, she tries shaving the troublesome eyebrows, and this also goes predictably wrong. She has a crush on the boy next door, but he’s going out with another friend from school, so she is forced to watch from the sidelines and think about what she really wants.Marathon_Ikebe

After the first chapter, the central focus of each story is one of Gan-chan’s friends or soon-to-be friends. Taeko is a new student who transferred from Tokyo, quiet, studious. She encounters Gan-chan, Hi-chan, and the third member of their circle, Piko, on the train as they race on just seconds before the train is about to pull out of the station. She can’t help grinning at their silly antics. But they are kind to her at school in a way that is so natural and unforced; they’re not going out of their way to be nice to her, they’re just nice people. The chapters that follow featuring the origins of the friendships between Piko, Gan-chan, and Hi-chan, as well as a moment with Taeko, a classmate obsessed with a hot boy singer/writer, are similarly full of these quiet moments of kindness.

This is the thing Ikebe is so skilled at, portraying character through the briefest interactions, through a blank look, a raised eyebrow, an extended hand, an instruction shouted casually over a shoulder. Her simple, soft lines and minimal backgrounds are surprisingly expressive, and her drawings simply exude a kind of peaceful calm. Just looking at random pages almost makes me tear up; there’s a warm nostalgic understanding she brings to these stories. She has been there, and she knows these girls are going to be just fine. Ikebe has such a gift for finding this quiet hope in the modest stories she tells. Reading her work always makes me feel like maybe the world will be all right, after all.Dance_Ikebe

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5 thoughts on “Zassou-tachi yo Taishi wo Idake: Aoi Ikebe

  1. Seriously, sometimes I think that following your blog is really not good for my wallet.
    Ahem.

    Now what we have established that, back to the topic. Aoi Ikebe. What an artist. The first book of hers that I read was Kagome Kagome. It was superb. The clean lines are similar to Fumiko Fumi and Machiko Kyo but also different. She has her own style and her own vibe. She is so good at subtlety too.

    I love Piko’s dance, she’s so tiny and cute and surprisingly very observant and sensitive. Out of the girls, I like Hi-chan the most. She’s cool, I think. I also love how not physically perfect the girls are. It makes everything more grounded in a way.

    Adolescence can be brutal (I know mine was). Books like this portray the rosy part of it and it feels like basking in the summer sun on a good day. So warm. Not necessarily perfect, but that’s life, I guess.

    1. I never said my blog would be good for your wallet. I only promised books!

      I haven’t read Kagome Kagome for some reason. I’m sure I’ll get to it, though. I am totally in love with Ikebe. I totally get the connection with Fumi and Kyo, but she definitely brings her own something to her manga.

      And I should have mentioned how the girls are all far from the “ideal” of beauty. Thanks for pointing that out! They are gangly and awkward and weird, which is another way Ikebe captures the high school experience. Definitely a rosy version of it, but yes, like basking in the summer sun. You won’t get that sun every day, but sometimes, you get lucky.

  2. Haha, fair enough. You have introduced so many underrated gems relatively unknown to people outside of the industry so that’s great. However, it’s not good for my bank account because I still have to keep up with the BL books. Gotta pay our dues as a fujoshi, you know.

    You should totally read Kagome Kagome. I bought the e-book version and now I am contemplating getting the physical book. The art is just so pretty. I think Ikebe is different in the sense that her art is always so melancholic. The way she draws the characters’ eyes and expressions, like they are going through life in slow motion. Not exactly lethargic, just serenely living even through pain and heartbreak. Like in a dream. I love that sort of atmosphere, especially since it always fits her stories. She has style. Is any of her work ever translated into English?

    Oh, tell me about it, adolescent awkwardness is something else. I cringe every time I look at my middle school and high school pictures. The bad hair, the disastrous fashion sense, the embarrassing poses, so nostalgic but so cringe worthy, lol.

    1. Oh, I know those fujoshi dues. I’ll try to talk about some crap books for the next little while to spare your bank account. (Note: I probably won’t actually talk about crap books.)

      I’m definitely going to pick up Kagome Kagome. I want to read everything by Ikebe! She just keeps hitting it out of the park for me. And your description is so perfect! “Like they are going through life in slow motion”! That’s exactly what it seems like, that serenity somehow. None of her work has been translated into English that I know of, but I really hope that changes.

      Now that I am an Old Woman, I’m so happy I’m not a teenager. It’s so exhausting! So awkward! So dramatic! Plus, I know that twenty years from now, they will be looking back at their disastrous fashion, bad hair, etc. Nostalgic, but yikes!

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