I found a new bookstore! That in and of itself is perhaps not the biggest deal. As I mentioned only last week, this is Tokyo and there is a bookstore on nearly every corner. But not every bookstore is equal. Some are too small to carry much beyond the latest issue of One Piece and the most recent Akutagawa Prize winners. Some are overly niche-y in a niche I have no interest in, like the Shosen Grandé in Akihabara and its “train lovers’ holy land.” Naturally, I will still happily wander through the aisles of such bookstores—just being surrounded by all those pages with their many messages is so comforting—but my favourite bookstores are, of course, the ones that cater to my own weird nerdiness. Sometimes, all a bookstore needs to be is really big. But every so often, I will stumble across a cosy little place that offers maximum discovery potential in the minimum of space, which is the case of the bookstore I found last week in Koenji.
Half the small shop was taken up by manga, most of it pretty standard, but the random stuff was so deeply random! I was greeted by so many titles I’d never even heard of. And they had sample readers for more than half of those manga, so you can check out all these random treats and see if any of them suit your refined palette. The other half of the place was mostly bunkobon, with a smattering of art, philosophy, and other bits and bobs (I got a book about Japanese women’s prison! Yes, we’ll be talking about it at some point in the future!). And the shop itself was warm and inviting with wood shelves everywhere in islands instead of aisles and a raised section that allowed you to look out over the rest of the shop like a queen surveying her queendom of books. I was very happy there, and it is now where I want my ashes scattered when I die.
They also had titles by authors I like that I hadn’t actually seen anywhere else. Ekoda-chan will always be near and dear to my heart, which means I automatically pick up anything artist Yukari Takenami does. But Arigatotte Ietanara is more than just a book by a favoured author, it also faces off with something that’s been on my mind a lot this year in particular: the death of a parent. Reading comics for a living like I do, it can be easy to forget/not pay too much mind to the passage of time. Sure, I’m getting older, but I don’t have a lot of markers of that fact. With no kids to carve lines into my face, I live pretty much like I have since I hit adulthood—or rather since I got a job that actually paid enough to live on. So it’s easy to forget that my parents are getting older right alongside of me. And what do you do when the only people who have known you your entire life are no longer there to see the end of (your) show?
Takenami tackles this daunting question with the same heart and humour she brought to Ekoda-chan, although maybe heavier on the “heart” than the “humour”. Over the course of eighteen chapters, she takes us from the moment she learns about her mother’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer through to her death and out the other side where she struggles to make sense of a world without her mother in it. In case that didn’t already tip you off, this is not the sort of book you should be reading on the train. Unless you really like sobbing in front of strangers. That is not my jam, though. So after the first few chapters, once the sad times really started ramping up, this baby was reserved for at-home reading only.
The tears (guaranteed by the book’s obi, a claim I can verify) don’t just come from the obvious places. Takenami’s relationship with her mother has always been somewhat strained, and she tries all kinds of things to find a point of balance between caring for the woman as she grows progressively more ill and keeping her own sanity, including a telephone psychic who turns out to be unexpectedly helpful. Her older sister Nao is a nurse and ends up their mother’s main caretaker as she juggles her two small children, her job, and the increasingly demanding sick woman, all with the patience of a saint, until one day that patience simply runs out. Her older brother and his wife are on the verge of having their third child, and the pregnancy turns out to be complicated, so he isn’t able to be as present as the two daughters.
The depiction of the various ways the family copes and comes together, together with the mother coming to terms with the nearing end of her life, had me tearing up constantly because of how true it all rang. Like when Takenami wearily wishes it would just be over already. Or when her mother is in palliative care and in intense pain, she finds comfort in pictures of pugs on the internet.None of this is written in any kind of deliberately maudlin way. It might tug at the heart strings, but only because of how true it is, how human, how mundane. And Takenami’s simple, expressive lines are perfect here. She depicts pretty much everyone as a cartoon-y caricature, except for possibly her mother, who is the most detailed of anyone who appears in these pages. But these near caricatures help to give the story a universality that transcends the particulars of her mother’s death to make it a leaping off point for anyone facing the possibility of their own parent’s death. Takenami’s story is beautiful and painful and 100% recommended reading. I am still crying just thinking about it.