Motherhood is one of those topics you don’t really see addressed too much in manga or fiction in general, really. I mean, sure, you see mothers and children all the time in books, but that’s mostly because we all have had a mother at some point in our lives. The stories these mothers and children show up in are not generally about motherhood, but rather the lives of the mothers and children in the larger world. There’s too rarely an inward focus, the lens turned on what it means to be a mother and how that meaning shifts and changes. I actually was struck by the way Reese Witherspoon’s character wrestles with this very thing on the first episode of Big Little Lies (which I saw on the plane because that is the only time I ever watch TV shows that are not on Netflix) because I see it so rarely. Mothers have children, they interact with them, they are on the peripheries of their lives or at the centres of them, they are off-screen, they are long dead and longed-for, they are negligent or doting, but their motherhood itself is not usually the story.
Given how we as a culture are always harping on how motherhood is the greatest role a woman could ever hope to play, I’m almost surprised at the lack of reflection in our media on what it means to be a mother. Almost. In much the same way “pro-life” anti-choice groups are rarely interested in the actual lives of anyone involved in the pregnancy process, the concept of motherhood being the biggest thing a woman could do is more about making women second-class citizens than anything else. See also: Every article about a woman that lists her leading accomplishment as motherhood, even when she is a rocket scientist making incredible contributions to humanity.
And full disclosure: I am not a mother and I hope I never will be. (My womb is full of sand!) I have no interest in performing that particular gender role. But maybe that is exactly why I am intrigued by and drawn to Aoi Ikebe’s latest, Nee, Mama. (Or maybe it is just because it’s Aoi Ikebe, and I swoon anytime anything of hers shows up on the shelves of my bookstore.) Possibly my favourite thing about books is that they let me walk into lives completely different from mine and experience the world through a whole new lens. On a fundamental level, they teach me to empathize with and consider perspectives other than my own. And much like I will never be a bullfighter in Spain or an alcoholic copyeditor or a lovestruck goddess, I will never be a mother. But I can read about the experience of being a mother, thanks to Ikebe.
The first of the six stories in the collection, “Kirakira to Ame”, has single mother Ogawa preparing to see her son Kazuya off into adulthood as he takes a new job and moves off to begin life on his own. But we never see Kazuya in the present; he’s in his room or at work or out with friends. So we watch Ogawa go through the motions of motherhood: knocking to wake Kazuya up in the morning, preparing bentos for both of them, selecting food at the markets to make a special farewell dinner. Although she does spend time talking with her coworker and the fishmonger, she’s basically alone throughout the story, her mind flicking back to parent-teacher conferences or when Kazuya was just a baby. The sequence where she prepares the farewell meal and the phone call that follows capture her feelings for her son and their life together startlingly well with minimal dialogue. As always, Ikebe is a master of a glance, a subtle shift in expression to convey a character’s inner voice.
“Saza et Yaniku” tackles the issue of motherhood from a different perspective, the phantom mother that lingers for Yaniku after she is abandoned at a Catholic orphanage, as well as the more metaphorical mother of the convent that runs the orphanage. It becomes clear that Yaniku’s mother was a prostitute who is likely never coming back for her, but Yaniku yearns for her and sees her in a different way, remembering the songs she used to sing her. Mother Vie watches over Yaniku and her best friend Saza indulgently, while the younger sisters learn from her and follow her example. And while I loved this and the follow-up story “Karasu no Naku Yoru ni Yaniku wa”, my favourite story in the collection is “Yuyake Carnival” which brings together a motherless child and a childless mother in the most bittersweet, heartbreaking way.
Waka spies on the woman running a sort of odds-and-ends shop, convinced she is a witch. She goes home to an empty house and falls asleep reading fairytales. When she wakes up in the exact same spot and thanks an absent mother for a breakfast of a store-bought bun, it becomes clear that her home life is not great. But she is steadfast in the way that children are, seemingly confident that wherever her mother has gone, she will be back soon enough. She ends up talking to the “witch”, and rather than disabuse the girl of her fantasies, the older woman tells Waka that yes, she is a witch. This idea takes firm root in the girl’s head when a man stops by the shop with an egg-shaped bald head, and Waka assumes he is Humpty Dumpty. The witch quickly realizes that the girl’s mother is gone, and she can’t help but reach out to help her, even though she projects a tough attitude—“All of us are alone in the end,” she tells Humpty when he worries at her about Waka. It’s beautiful and touching, and this story in particular gives us multiple views of motherhood and the ways people can be mothers.
This is perhaps the best part of the book. Ikebe doesn’t focus on the usual notions of motherhood and family. There is one story, “Stand Up”, which features the stereotypical nuclear family, but all the other families in the book are ad hoc, people thrown together by circumstance, single mothers, people making connections in unexpected ways. And more than her gentle lines and quiet pages, it’s this that I love about Ikebe. Her characters seek connections with each other, they struggle to find themselves and their place. And they don’t always manage it perfectly. But they reach out to each other. And sometimes, that’s enough.