TCAF was last month, and it was my first time not working the festival since…2008? Usually, I’m glued to the side of a Japanese guest, interpreting for them on stage, taking them to Niagara Falls, and generally making sure their visit to Toronto is a success. And because I’ve been in this role for so many years, I’ve met a lot of people from all over and made a lot of friends in the comics community. Which is great! But I never had the time to spend with them because I was chasing a Japanese artist around for the whole weekend. So not working TCAF for the first time in over a decade meant that I could just walk around and chat with amazing people. And also with featured guest Jun Mayuzuki, who was delighted to learn that I translated her moving series After the Rain.
My last trip to Tokyo had this vibe as well. Being locked out of the country for nearly three years means that I hadn’t seen a lot of my favourite J-pals, but also many non-J-pals since the city is a place we tend to converge on, much like TCAF. So I finally got to see half of the Mangasplaining crew again, a true treat! And one half of that half joined me on a little trip to the best indie bookstore in all of Tokyo town, Popotame, to enjoy even more friendship! Yes, this trip was basically a reunion tour.
During the pandemic years when I was cruelly kept away from Japanese bookstores, Popotame did some renovations to open the space up and connect the gallery in the back to the bookstore in the front for an even more immersive and incredible comics experience. (And publishing! Popotame also publishes an amazing array of indie manga, some of which I have translated into English, which you should maybe check out if you are looking for something great and new to read.) Everything in the shop is carefully curated by owner Eriko Obayashi, who is the other friend I mentioned in that last paragraph. Not only does she have a wide selection of some really interesting manga, she also brings in cool indie offerings from all over the world.
Naturally, when you go to a shop like this, you take advantage of this deep expertise and ask for recommendations. Which Eriko provided ever so enthusiastically. I wanted to buy everything she laid out in front of us, but this visit took place mere days before my return to the blizzard-ridden Toronto, and my suitcases were already painfully overweight. So I only allowed myself a few of the lighter treats on display, a couple of minis from Chinese publisher Paradise Systems (check them out! They’re doing cool work!), a beautiful and lightweight book on kimono, and Chakkun.
I told you we were going to talk about some cat manga. And this one is a real beauty. Published by random art and clothing maker kiken, Chakkun is the first manga from illustrator Mizusawa, making this book something quite far from the beaten manga path. A beautiful, slender hardback with metallic embossed cover, it’s honestly just a treasure to hold. You can immediately tell that a lot of care and thought went into the making of it, which is probably unsurprisingly given that the subject of the entire work is Mizusawa’s beloved cat, Chubby aka Chakkun, named after King of the Twist Chubby Checker.
The book is a series of short stories about this chubby little king. The first, “The Great Escape”, is entirely wordless and in full colour, really showcasing Mizusawa’s dayjob as an illustrator. Nearly every panel could be a print hanging on a gallery wall. But they have a keen eye for pacing as well, as they show us Chakkun’s grand adventure through the neighbourhood, pouncing at birds and hiding under cars. Eventually, the wayward cat is brought back home and pampered as he so clearly deserves to be.
The other chapters are in black and white, alternating between Chakkun and Mizusawa’s perspectives for an entertaining look at life with cat. In “Keichitsu”, Mizusawa is awakened by Chakkun actually peeing on his face, which is super gross but objectively hilarious. In “Banka”, Mizusawa scrapes together the last of his cash to buy a bag of rice. Which Chakkun promptly tears into, presumably mistaking it for a bag of cat food. Throughout, we are treated to a lot of cat balls and anus because that is just how cats are.
After each chapter, there is a little haiku summing up the spirit of the chapter. I don’t think I’ve ever seen poetry and manga mixed together in this way, but it really works here, distilling the essence of the story into a few carefully chosen words. As for the art itself, Chakkun is oddly changeable, his face and body shifting from panel to panel, but in a way that totally makes sense for a cat, those weird creatures that can somehow squeeze through cracks underneath doors. And yes, there are pictures of the real-life Chakkun, including one of him sitting at a table and staring at the camera indignantly or maybe imperiously, that cracks me up every time I look at it. He looks like a little manager who is outraged that you think you can come to work dressed like that.
And then there is the poignant essay at the end, in which Mizusawa talks about his life with Chakkun and how the manga came to be. It’s beautiful and sad and the perfect tribute to a beloved friend. I really hope an indie manga publisher like Glacier Bay picks this one up because honestly, who doesn’t love a good cat manga?