Yes, 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.
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.
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.