It’s that time of year, friends. Maybe you’ve grown tired of my nattering on about TCAF, but like it or not, that nattering is here to stay as long as the festival keeps happening and I keep torturing myself with interpreting for it. Last year was actually the first time I didn’t have a Japanese artist to take care of full time, and it was such a strange feeling to be able to attend and be a part of the panels. I even went around and talked to exhibitors, bought books, hung out like I had nowhere else to be. So naturally, after a very laidback year, I was in for the exact opposite this year with guest Inio Asano. Which is not to say he was a demanding petulant diva! He was not! He’s actually a lovely person, and I had a great time hanging out with him for the five days he was in town for the festival. But Japanese guests have varying levels of English ability, which means I am more or less needed for interpreting. And Asano’s English is essentially non-existent, so it was the more needed part of that equation this year.
As is my custom when preparing to welcome Japanese artists to the festival, I’ve spent the last couple months reading everything Asano ever wrote and hunting down every last interview he’s done, essentially becoming his best and most dedicated stalker. (Don’t tell him that, though.) I even turned up a conversation between him and (another former TCAF guest) Usamaru Furuya in an old issue of Erotics f I have tucked away in the back of my bookcase. All this preparation proved very useful, especially the video of the live drawing event in Italy (which I watched enough to start to learn Italian from the interpreter), and Asano’s sessions at the festival all went really well. Or so I assume from the feedback I got from the audiences and fans who came to the signing sessions. And now Asano is back in Japan, I am not dead, and we have a book to talk about.
I actually read Reiraku back when it came out last fall, before Asano was a confirmed guest, just because I like his work in general and this was the hot new thing on the bookstore shelf. But I was reluctant to write about it because I felt like I wouldn’t be able to avoid speculating on Asano’s mental health and life in general. Basically, the book made me a little worried about him. Because it seems very autobio, and that tale is a bit grim. Now that I’ve spent some time with him, though, I feel better about talking about this latest work. He is doing okay, you guys. No need to worry.
He said in interviews at the festival, though, that this work is in fact based on what he was going through in his own life a few years ago, with a rather hostile divorce and other life circumstances. And the protagonist is indeed a manga artist approaching middle age, his relationship with his manga editor wife disintegrating as he tries to find his way forward career-wise after wrapping up a long-running and very popular manga series. The story opens with Fukazawa being feted by his publisher after the final volume of his series comes out, and then follows him on a slow slide downward as he fumbles forward. Manga seems meaningless to him now. No one wants work that digs deep and makes the reader feel sometimes uncomfortable emotions; they want happy endings and easy reads. That’s what sells. And Fukazawa is caught being wanting to make work that sells—one of the artists his wife works with provides a nice foil here as a top-selling manga artist whose work Fukazawa disdains for being lowest common denominator—and wanting to create something new and innovative within the format.
As he grows further apart from his wife and alienates his assistants and friends, he turns to sex workers for human contact, eventually befriending (in a way) the much younger Chifuyu. Given that she becomes the fulcrum for Fukazawa at that moment in his life, she has a hint of manic pixie dream girl to her, especially with her almond eyes and short hair, but she is a proper character with an arc and ideas of her own. She’s taking what she needs from Fukazawa as much as he is taking from her, so it feels a lot less skeevy than it might in the hands of a less skilled artist.
And Asano is indeed a very skilled artist. He’s spent years honing his craft and his artwork really shines in Reiraku. There’s an organicness to these pages, a softness not seen in his earlier work. The way he shuns screentones and sticks to grey washes for the most part really adds to this effect. And he makes very effective use of two-page spreads, mostly to express those leaps of memory we all make. In the last panel on one page, it starts to snow, and suddenly his mind jumps back in time to when he and his wife were happy together in the middle of a snowfall. And the colour pages at the beginning—a glimpse into the past—are suitably dreamy, with the bright light coming in through the window haloing around the objects in the frame.
It’s a dark story, and maybe not one that every reader will be satisfied with, even if—or maybe especially if you are a fan of Asano’s previous work. But it’s clearly a story he wanted/needed to tell. When asked this weekend which of his untranslated works he’d like to see published in English, he talked passionately about Reiraku and how he felt it was the best work he’d done to date. So fingers crossed longtime Asano publisher VIZ Media grabs this one and brings it to all you monolinguals.
UPDATE: English translation by yours truly is coming out from VIZ! I would suggest you go buy it. You are sure to love it/be depressed by it/have a lot of thoughts/need therapy after reading it.