Far too many of my posts here are basically me moaning about how some great Japanese book will never be licensed in English, so it’s a treat to come across something like Tongari Boshi, which is both a great Japanese book and something that is sure to be licensed in English. I am so sure this will happen that I had to google it right now to make sure it hasn’t already been announced. (It hasn’t, so this is where I make my customary plea to publishers: Whoever licensed this, please hire me to translate it.)
Tongari Boshi is the whole package: great art and a great story that bridges the gap between cultures effortlessly for a charming package that is just so very good. I only picked it up because Shirahama, who does work for Marvel and DC Comics as well as being a manga artist, had a booth at Tokyo Comic Con in Artists’ Alley a hop, skip, and a jump away from the TCAF crew. Even still, I wouldn’t have paid her much attention were it not for a member of said crew who raved about her exquisite line work and dragged me over to interpret for him when he went to talk to her.
Being more of a word person than a drawing person (hence my calling as a translator), I couldn’t really appreciate this incredible linework in the moment. I mean, sure, her illustrations were lovely, and she seemed to be able to control her pen, but that is basically what I expect from an artist, so I wasn’t getting all gobsmacked about it. But she was a very lovely person, and I always try to support the art of lovely people I meet, so I picked up her book when I got the chance. And then I ran right out to pick up the second volume and am now eagerly awaiting the third volume (February 2018!).
Koko lives in a world of magic and wants nothing more than to be a magician herself. But magic is something you’re born with, and Koko is not one of those chosen few, so she can only dream of a life of the beauty and wonder she sees in magic. Even so, she’s convinced that if she just tries hard enough, wants it bad enough, she too can become a magician. And then a chance encounter with a real magician turns her world upside down when she discovers the truth about all the magic in her world.
This all sounds generic fantasy, but the angle Shirahama takes is surprisingly fresh with magic being not something you “cast”, but something you “write.” And this is where my translator brain practically goes off the rails since the words for “cast” and “write” in Japanese are homonyms, but they are very much not in English. How to translate such a foundational part of the story?? Shirahama (likely) unknowingly presents a number of such translation challenges as she introduces us to this strange and charming world of magic and apprentices and evildoers.
When I say this is a good story, I don’t just mean it is well-written and well-executed, although of course, it is. It’s also good in the moral, just sense of the word. Magic exists in this world to do good, to make people happy, and after being whisked away by her master magician, Koko takes that lesson to heart, in contrast with her fellow apprentice Agatto, who is more focussed on technical skill and showing off her abilities. So when the four young apprentices find themselves up against a dragon, it’s Koko who comes up with a solution that allows the girls to escape and make the dragon happy.
Shirahama takes great pains to keep the story on the warm, fuzzy side of things while still creating plenty of engaging drama and a detailed world filled with real characters. Like, the ink the magicians need to write their magic comes from the dying branches of a particular tree. But if the ink is not extracted from these branches, it poisons the entire tree and any person who happens upon it. So the magicians aren’t actually harming the trees to get the ink they need to ply their trade. There’s an underlying goodwill to this story that is so warming and generous.
And don’t even get me started about the art! I came to understand soon enough all the raving about Shirahama’s linework. This series is just page after page of beautiful. So fine and detailed and full of such motion! Everything is moving; it really feels like you’re reading a movie at times. And she has such a great sense of pacing. When the apprentices discover they are up against a dragon, that reveal comes after pages of cramped panels, twisting and turning roads that suddenly open up into a full two-page spread of menacing dragon. I kept stopping and flipping back just to look at things. The art here is such a perfect blend of Western and Japanese comics, combining the best of both styles.
All of which is why I will be truly stunned if this doesn’t get picked up in English. It’s sold a bajillion copies in Japanese and has been picked up in French already. It’s easily the most accessible thing I’ve read all year, but without pandering to tired tropes to gain a readership. It’s simply utterly delightful, the kind of story that makes you believe the world can be a good place. So read it and take that hope with you into the new year. よいお年を！