Hiraesu wa Tabiji no Hate: Kamatani Yuhki

I came late to the Kamatani Yuhki party. I’d never heard of them until I was flipping through the excellent and sadly short-lived manga magazine Hibana in my temporary home on top of a mountain in the south of Japan, a band of temperamental cats my only companions, and discovered the first chapter of Shimanami Tasogare. I had just agreed to join the production of the excellent documentary Queer Japan as interpreter and translator, so all things queer were very much on my mind (more than usual, I mean). Meaning that a new series about a bunch of queer people was very much my jam. But beyond the queerness of it all, I was struck by the incredible art and storytelling, and I wondered how Kamatani had never slipped onto my radar before. It was a surprise and an honour when I was asked to translate the series into English a couple years later. Wild the way things come together. 

So I was delighted when I stumbled upon Kamatani’s latest series essentially by accident. I try to keep an eye out for work by artists I like, but there are a lot of artists I like, and sometimes work slips through the cracks. By the time I discovered the first chapter online, the first volume had already come out. But if there’s anything that longtime readers here know, it’s that I am not timely in any book I read. I will never be the person urging you to preorder anything, although I know that preorders are important, and as a person who actually works in the publishing industry, I really should be more proactive on the preorder thing. But honestly, I can barely keep track of what came out two years ago, much less what’s coming out in the future. 

Before we go any further, I should note that this volume deals with death as its basic subject matter and mentions suicide, so if you are not in a place for reading about that, skip this one. Maybe go check out Witch Hat Atelier or Nozaki-kun, timeless treasures that will never hurt you. (And if you need more than manga, it’s okay to ask for help. Please do. We need you in this world.)

Hiraesu is quite different from Shimanami if only because the fantasy in this one is overt, rather than a literary device for expressing emotion and mystery (although it is that, too). Teenaged Mika is devastated after the loss of her friend and decides to kill herself so that they can be together again. But as she leaps out into traffic, she catches the eye of Hibino, who races over to knock her out of the path of the oncoming truck only to have it smash into him. Things look pretty dire, but fortunately, Hibino is immortal and he’s picking himself up off the pavement in no time flat. Mika assumes he is a zombie and is understandably freaked out, but he just can’t die; he is not into eating brains. Hibino explains that he is on a road trip with a nameless god, which Mika doubts very much. But then she sees this god transform from teenage boy in a T-shirt into an androgynous beauty with long hair and layers of kimono who can make sake appear out of thin air and she is a believer.

The god is on a final journey (“end of the journey” as the English subtitle has it) to visit the many other gods of Japan before their eventual arrival at Yomi, the land of the dead, and their death there. And that’s the bit that Mika latches onto. Maybe she can die too at Yomi and finally be reunited with her beloved. She decides she’s going with Hibino and the god whether they want her to or not, and so the road trip begins. 

This book honestly has everything: road trip complete with motorcycle side car, Japanese mythology, onsen, dragons, gorgeous kimono, and even little old ladies. It’s often funny, sometimes scary, frequently sad, and more than occasionally queer as hell. Kamatani has a real gift for balancing the light with the dark in a book that’s essentially about dying well and living with purpose. I absolutely cried at least once in every chapter because of how beautifully they handle such huge and difficult concepts. Mika’s inability to really grieve or face death hit me so hard, but so did Hibino’s constant effort to live a life of meaning when it has no end. And perhaps unsurprisingly, I was reminded of The Good Place, a TV show with similar themes that handles them with similar grace and humour. 

The book is also a work of art. You could pick a page at random and frame it. It’s honestly jaw-dropping. Kamatani is truly a master of the comic arts. Even after I finished reading this first volume, I kept picking it up and flipping through it because it’s just so gorgeous. Every panel is so expressive, so full of emotion, and there isn’t a superfluous line in the whole book. The pacing is exquisite, opening up into spreads or close-ups that brought tears to my eyes. It’s been a while since the first volume of a series put me through the wringer like this. I don’t know how Kamatani does it, but I very sincerely hope they keep doing it for as long as they are able to, and that people throw a ton of cash at them to do so. 

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