November very nearly murdered me, friends. I’m still standing, happily, but dang, there were a lot of fires to put out last month. And although there was some fun had as I ran around doing just that, I’m pretty happy to be stepping into December with nothing but my usual (too heavy) workload. ’Tis the season for illumination! I need to not be chained to my table-that-functions-as-a-desk in my Tokyo apartment! I must go and enjoy the non-denominational displays of winter electricity scattered around this city, and indeed the country! I’m off to Kyushu later this month, where I have high hopes of seeing impressive arrangements of a variety of light bulbs, as well as meeting the defacto Kyushu ambassador, Kumamon. (I know the other prefectures have mascot characters, but honestly, does anyone actually care about them? When was the last time you saw Jimo-kun show up for a fan meet-and-greet at Tokyo Comic Con? Never, that’s when. So don’t talk to me about any of the other mascots of Kyushu.)
Don’t worry, though. Even with the TCAF crew in town for Kaigai Manga Festa and more Tokyo fun, even while preparing a talk on the translation of visuals between cultures, even while attending amazing translation seminars, and yes, even when staying up far too late for too many nights in a row to meet deadlines that past me set because she was overly optimistic about present me’s abilities, I was still stopping by bookstores and picking up books, and then reading said books. Because reading is like breathing for me, and honestly, it’s the only thing that keeps me from totally losing my marbles when I am pressed up against the wall by past me’s optimistic scheduling of present me.
And I happened to return to Tokyo right when the second (and final) volume of Haruko Kumota’s latest hit the shelves. And nothing eases my stressed brain like a little of Kumota’s warm linework and delightful reaction shots! Obviously, her most comforting and stress-relieving work is the perfect love of Kei-chan and Mii-kun, but my brain will also accept other, non-BL works. Especially non-BL works that are actually word nerd works! Fune wo Amu is a manga adaptation of the award-winning novel by Shion Miura, a novel that perhaps could only become a bestseller in Japan, given that it tells the tale of people making a dictionary. This is a country of serious bookworms. And yes, this manga is two volumes of people making a dictionary, and it is just as amazing as I was hoping it would be (not having read the novel it is based on).
I felt the same way when I saw the movie Hikari. The main character writes commentary for movies and things for the blind, a job that I did not know existed and one I became immediately fascinated with upon seeing the film. But in Fune, it is dictionaries that the main character is writing. And I knew that writing dictionaries was a job some people had, but I’d never really considered it beyond that. Now, I maybe want to be a dictionary writer? It looks like word nerd heaven! Just spending all day trying to nail words down, thinking about the perfect word to capture the meaning you’re looking for. But maybe that is basically what I do as a translator, although toward a different end, so I don’t need to change careers at this late stage.
Anyway, a young Majime (whose name is homonymous with the word for “serious”) is recruited by outgoing dictionary editor Araki to take his place in the barebones dictionary department of a certain publisher. Majime is a natural organizer and perfectly suited to this work. His colleague Nishioka, in contrast, could care less about dictionaries. He is the face of the operation, going around to all the experts they are getting expert definitions from and cajoling the definitions the dictionary needs out of them, even if that means taking a bit of a threatening stance with them. The two men are the same age, but very different people who take pretty different paths in life. They still end up tied together by the dictionary and their commitment to it, even when their employer decides to take Nishioka out of the dictionary department and move him into sales.
There is less discussion of words and related issues than you might expect. The men (and it is almost entirely men, minus one part-time lady worker, a fact which I would be grumbling about if it was anyone but a BL author, especially since Kumota gives us plenty of fujoshi fodder) come to their understandings with the dictionary through their lived experiences, and the struggle to put the dictionary together becomes surprisingly personal, especially toward the end, for reasons I will not detail because spoilers, but which made me cry.
There are notes here that remind me of Rakugo, especially the older mentor and the bonding between younger, but radically different colleagues (one of whom can never have the job they truly want), and I can’t imagine anyone else tackling the task of turning this novel into a comic. Especially since Kumota actually did the illustrations for the novel when it was being serialized. She clearly gets the source material on a deep level, and the glowing afterword from the novel’s author at the end of the second volume of the comic is a testament to that. Kumota also manages to neatly split the story, so that the second volume jumps ahead over a decade to show us the eventual completion of the dictionary and where our young protagonists end up.
Some bits feel incomplete or rushed, like Araki’s departure from the company at the beginning of the book. He has to leave because of family circumstances, but those are never elaborated on and he ends up working on the dictionary with everyone else for the entire manga. Maybe he can no longer be the full-time editor he was, but this part of the story is too underdeveloped, so it seems abrupt and strange. Especially since the first few pages are devoted to how he came to the world of dictionaries, setting the reader up for Araki’s story, which abruptly turns into Majime’s story. This probably plays out better in the original novel where Miura no doubt had more breathing room. This sort of cramped contraction happens often enough that I was wishing this was three rather than two books long.
But this is honestly a mere quibble. Kumota is one of the best manga artists working right now, and even when she trips up, she still sticks the landing impressively. She has such a gift for characterization, making the people in her pages leap off them and into my heart. I fall in love with them every time, and then she manages to make them break my heart somehow, and I still come back for more. I hope there is more soon.