I have this stack of books that I want to share with you that’s slowly growing off to one side of my desk. There’s some really good stuff in there, and I know you’d love it, but the world/life/work have all been conspiring to keep me from ever battling another book on these pages, it would seem. All good conspiracies, though! Don’t worry. I’m not over here fighting off sadness behind the scenes. It’s all new translation projects that I can’t talk about yet although I’m very excited about them, visits from favourite family people, and even an encounter with an entirely unfamiliar comics scene in an entirely unfamiliar country! Where the definition of vegetarian is somewhat looser than expected! (Yes, I got surprise shrimp. No, I did not notice before taking a big bite. Yes, it was disgusting and very upsetting.)
TCAF was invited to come and talk about ourselves at the Golden Comic Awards in Taipei last month, a lavish event sponsored by the ministry of culture that had me wishing we got anywhere near that kind of financial support from our own government. At the awards ceremony, a vtuber (who reminded me very much of the vocaloids) sang a special song about all the nominees and then a for-real pop star took the stage to sing more about how great comics are. (I assume. I still don’t speak any form of Chinese, although not for lack of intense listening to every single person who spoke it at me. Somewhere inside me was this desperate hope that if I just focussed, I would pick up this language in the week that I was in the country. It turns out that this is not a viable strategy for language acquisition.) There was also a guy in a cat suit hosting and a camera crew filming the whole thing for broadcast on Taiwan’s version of NHK. They made a special point of panning over the “foreign delegates” as we waved to the cameras, so if you are in Taiwan, please send a clip of me on Taiwanese TV. Thank you.
But the most exciting part was getting to discover all this fascinating work that was being made in a completely new (to me) comics scene. I was particularly in love with 61Chi, and now my fondest wish (aside from an English publisher hiring me to translate Kaze to Ki no Uta) is for someone to license her work so I can read it. (Although she has a book coming out in French later this year, so I guess that will have to satisfy me for the time being.) Fortunately, though, there are also great books in the languages that I do read, and I figured it was about time we talked about some of those, now that another comics scene has reminded me why comics are so great in the first place.
So let’s look at one of the latest from Torch, the weird indie publisher based in Koenji not too far from my Tokyo home. They’ve done some books that I’ve really loved, like Magician A, and I’ll always at least read the back of one of their books, if only for the sheer variety and novelty of their lineup. I picked up Shinzo almost against my will. It’s a collection of six short stories, but I wasn’t much in the mood for short stories at the time. But the title (“Heart”) and the cover drew me in, together with the copy on the obi: “My heart is moving. It will tomorrow, too. And probably the day after that.” There’s something vaguely menacing about that “probably”, and it drew me in.
The stories themselves are not menacing, not really, and that is not a complaint. The titular “Shinzo” is about a high school girl with some kind of heart condition that could kill her. It is also about a tiny man who farms on her head? While Shimako sits on the sidelines in gym class, the farmer climbs up her back in search of new lands to farm. He travels through the rain of her tears on a little leaf boat and chats with his mother. As his host struggles with how to accept her life-threatening condition, he pushes forward with making a new life of his own. It’s a weird juxtaposition, and I’m not sure how well Okuda manages to actually slam these two threads together, but it’s an interesting read if nothing else, and the end of their combined story lingers in my mind.
The star of “Kami-sama” is a sentient rice cooker. Yes, it’s weird. No, the rice cooker doesn’t really do much with that sentience. It is still a rice cooker. But the rice cooker turns out to be an indirect way for the protagonist to confront and accept an accident that put her twin sister in a coma. It’s a strange little meditation on grief and relationships that left me wanting more. Meanwhile, another weird tale “Dream Into Dream” is printed on bright yellow pages in the middle of the book, so you know I love that. (More colour pages in manga, please!) This story is actually three short shorts, done in collaboration with Hiroyuki Ohashi, creator of City Lights among other books. This is another jarring juxtaposition, with Okuda’s art being more indie manga style with relatively realistic depictions of characters, while Ohashi is more cartoon-ish, all scribbled lines and lack of detail. Only the last of these short shorts really works for me, a charming little tale of a man tasked with polishing a giant robot.
The other stories in the collection are more firmly planted in reality. The protagonist in “New Hawaii” watches helplessly as her best friend is sent to the hospital by her abusive boyfriend. But my favourites were “Yama Kawa Taeko” and “Rusuban”, both of which are lyrical and poetic in a way that reminded me of Saho Tono’s work, maybe just because they both take up the theme of childhood in a way that is so quietly beautiful. The first is only a few pages long, a quick memory of a childhood in the countryside, the sunny summer day so lovingly depicted I could almost hear the cicadas.
In “Rusuban”, young Tokko is left home with her sleeping grandfather while her mother goes to a doctor’s appointment. The whole story is just Tokko wandering around doing little girl stuff—trying to copy her favourite manga, playing with her dolls and various household objects, running around in the yard, pretending she’s in a video game. Nothing much happens at all, but Okuda manages to create such a languid atmosphere, the exact feeling of being a little kid on a summer day with too much and nothing at all to do at the same time. It’s honestly a perfect slice of a story and makes the whole collection worthwhile.
Okuda’s art is also at its most distinctive and unique in this story, lots of gentle shading and rounded lines. The other stories felt a little flat to me in terms of the art. I like it, but I feel like I’ve seen this style so much somehow. It’s telling that “Rusuban” and “Yama Kawa Taeko” are the most recent of all the work in this collection. Fingers crossed that gently poetic musings on childhood is the direction she continues to move in. No one can replace Saho Tono in my heart, but I’d be happy for her to have at least a little competition.