If you’ve ever been to Japan, you know the service pretty much everywhere is top notch, something that always leaves me disoriented when I return to Canada and cashiers who won’t even tell me the total they would like me to pay in exchange for the goods I would like to take home. And I get those grumpy retail workers on this side of the ocean. I worked in the service industry for a solid decade of my life, and it can be soul-suckingly awful, especially when you throw in customers who truly believe that garbage about the customer always being right. If that were actually true, then Michael Bolton is a better musician than John Coltrane (as one customer insisted to me in my record store days). And we all know that that is simply not possible.
It’s not like Japanese customers are so much better than Canadian customers, and that’s why the service is so great. I’ve seen plenty of jerks berating clerks and waiters over the years. But there is a whole system of training people for customer service that I’ve never seen in Canada. The closest I got to systemic training was when I started at a certain national clothing retailer, and they made me watch a video. (And take a very dodgy personality test.) For the most part, you get taught how to use the cash register, how to make a bank run, how to cash out—basically, how to do the business parts of the job. For the customer service parts, it’s usually “make sure to greet everyone within two minutes of them entering the store”, and that’s the end of it. How you greet them is entirely up to you. Not so in Japanese retail! New hires are drilled in what to say when, which is why no matter which Family Mart in the country you go to, the clerks will ask you the same questions in the same order and bow at exactly the same angle when your transaction is finished.
Nishimura Tsuchika takes this customer service training to the next fantastical level with Hokkyoku Hyakkaten. Akino has just started at the titular department store, and on the first page she tells us that it serves all kinds of animal customers so we know right away that this isn’t going to be your average luxury department store. It turns out that extinct or endangered animals are VIA (very important animals) whose every whim must be catered to with the finest service the store can offer. But Akino is still learning and is often scolded by her boss Todo, who appears out of cupboards and other random locations to remind her that he is always watching her. It’s a weird training program, but no weirder than a department store for rich animals.
Each chapter presents a different customer and a different customer service challenge for Akino to overcome, making the book feel like a collection of intertwined short stories rather than a continuous narrative. But there is a story arc that happens behind the scenes that serves to tie each chapter together into a longer whole. Akino works hard to maintain her smile and her composure as she tries to please an ever more demanding Caribbean monk seal or help father and daughter Japanese wolves have the perfect dinner together at the department store’s five-star restaurant. Akino is the very epitome of Japanese customer service, eager to do whatever she can to ensure that her customers have the best possible experience in the store and also live their best lives if she can make that happen in any small way.
Someone once said to me that Nishimura is weird for the sake of being weird, and while I can understand that criticism, I see something deeper in the weirdness. It’s more like a way of approaching the world around us at an angle, to peer into the corners and see things with fresh eyes. With a cast of animals of varying sizes and shopping needs, Akino is forced to put herself into their position, quite literally in some cases when she kneels down on the floor to be able to look her customers properly in the eye. There are moments of real kindness in this book, but when Akino is pushed to practically becoming a doormat for a customer, her coworker steps in and sets firm boundaries. Even in this fantasy world, the customer does not get to be right all the time. Because no one is right all the time.
You can tell that Nishimura really loves drawing animals, and maybe especially animals in clothes. Even a throwaway panel of a koala in a restaurant is full of lively energy, and a group of meerkats in kimono all feel distinct and unique rather than copies of each other. The humans get just as much love, although their fashion choices are limited to the uniforms they must wear. And Nishimura regularly employs a bit of visual trickery that I love, depicting the same character in several different poses in the same panel to indicate the speed of the action being performed. This is especially effective when Akino respectfully bows away from a customer as she breaks into a run to stop disaster from occurring with another.
It’s a fun, slow-burn of a story, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Nishimura takes it. Weird for the sake of it or not, any artist that gets blurbed by Matsumoto Taiyo has my attention.