It’s no secret that I buy a whole lot of books. This whole blog is basically a record of my inability to resist a tantalizing book cover. I do borrow from the library, too—libraries are the best and we should all support them however we can—but the way I live on both sides of the ocean is not really all that conducive to frequent library use. If I don’t finish one of my own books before I head back to Tokyo or Toronto, I can just leave it and come back to it upon my eventual return. Not so with the library book! Plus, I am a book nerd through and through. It is a such a great pleasure for me to own a book, to find the perfect place for it on my many shelves, and simply bask in its paperial beauty.
The other reason I prefer to buy my books is because you never know when you will want to read any particular book. I firmly believe that every book has a time, and it’s not always the time when you first come across it. I often buy books because a friend has recommended it or I saw something about it on Twitter, but I rarely have the time to read it the second I buy it. I’m usually reading one (or four) other books already, so the new book goes on the shelf of unread books to await its turn. Sometimes, that turn comes right away, as is generally the case for my favourite of favourite authors who I am always in the mood to read (yes, I’m looking at you, Ayako Noda) or the latest volume of a series I’m actively following (Sanju Mariko is still so good!). But for some books, it can take actual years for them to make their way to the head of the queue.
Yobidashi Hajime is one of the latter. I know I bought it when it came out because Asumiko Nakamura, and that was apparently in the summer of 2010, a full nine years ago. And then it sat and sat and sat on my shelf until this summer when I finally cracked it open. And honestly, the only reason I did is because I was pruning my shelves prior to my return to Tokyo in May and it was one of two books that I tucked into my luggage with the intention of skimming them and then setting them free in the land of their birth where they could hopefully find new life with a new reader. (The other was Fumiko Fumi’s yon-koma collection, Fundari Kettari, which was…very different from her other work.) Because I honestly couldn’t see myself enjoying either book that much, but my love of their authors made me want to at least do them the courtesy of reading their ugliest babies.
I ignorantly assumed Yobidashi was some kind of samurai story based solely on the bald head and fan on the cover, and the kimono-clad figure on the back. And I am not going to lie to you, I do not care for the samurai stories. The old-timey language is hard to read, and I can never really muster any enthusiasm for the swords and the fights and the genteel samurai nobility. So every time Yobidashi caught my eye, I would sigh and look away, selecting another book to read, unwilling to step into the unpleasant world of the samurai.
Of course, if I had even looked up the meaning of the title, I would have discovered that the book had nothing to do with samurai and everything to do with sumo. And I am interested in sumo, in that way you’re sort of forced to be in Japan these days, when the TV is eagerly covering the various seasonal bashos and certain ozeki can end up the talk of the town with their hot wives. (J-acquaintances have breathlessly recounted to me their close encounters with the sumo elite.)
A yobidashi is that guy in the sumo match who does all the extra stuff, like handing the wrestler a towel or doing the yelling bit in between matches or getting the salt ready. And there are different ranks of yobidashi who get to do all the calling and towelling for the different ranks of wrestlers. It’s a for-real job that you can get before you turn nineteen if you’re a guy (naturally, no women allowed since the ladies are prohibited from stepping into the ring as many learned when a woman got yelled at for stepping into the ring to save. Someone’s. Life. And yes, I think this is a bullshit, sexist tradition, why do you ask?). All of which I learned from reading the first volume of Nakamura’s sumo manga, a book I enjoyed far more than I expected to when I thought it was a samurai manga.
Our hero Hajime’s parents are obsessed with sumo, to the point where they even tried to fatten him up as a child so that he could be a wrestler. But that didn’t work so now they’re pushing for him to become a yobidashi. But Hajime’s not interested in wrestling. He’s got his very first girlfriend at last and he’s utterly invested in leading an utterly normal life, completely unconnected from his parents’ obsession. But of course, circumstances lead him to Ryogoku, the centre of the Tokyo sumo world, where he meets a beautiful woman who is perhaps more obsessed with sumo than his parents. The stage is set by the end of the first volume for a love triangle and strange career trajectory with a dash of family comedy, all depicted in Nakamura’s usual beautiful linework and her tendency to exaggerate her characters’ physiques.
By the time I finished this first volume, I was looking forward to going out and getting the rest of the series, because of course it would be finished or at least several volumes in now nine years later. But, friends, it is not. It seems that this first volume is all we will ever get. I can’t even begin to speculate why since Nakamura seemed plenty enthusiastic to continue the series, and Kodansha must have been at least somewhat interested in it since they didn’t make her wrap it up to fit in a single book. And it’s not marked with the telltale “ue” that indicates there will only be a “shita” second volume to finish things off. It’s simply a story that shows every intention of continuing and then does not. So if you want to get all hepped up for a potentially great story that you will never see the end of, this is the book for you.