Nee, Mama: Aoi Ikebe

Mama_IkebeMotherhood is one of those topics you don’t really see addressed too much in manga or fiction in general, really. I mean, sure, you see mothers and children all the time in books, but that’s mostly because we all have had a mother at some point in our lives. The stories these mothers and children show up in are not generally about motherhood, but rather the lives of the mothers and children in the larger world. There’s too rarely an inward focus, the lens turned on what it means to be a mother and how that meaning shifts and changes. I actually was struck by the way Reese Witherspoon’s character wrestles with this very thing on the first episode of Big Little Lies (which I saw on the plane because that is the only time I ever watch TV shows that are not on Netflix) because I see it so rarely. Mothers have children, they interact with them, they are on the peripheries of their lives or at the centres of them, they are off-screen, they are long dead and longed-for, they are negligent or doting, but their motherhood itself is not usually the story.

Given how we as a culture are always harping on how motherhood is the greatest role a woman could ever hope to play, I’m almost surprised at the lack of reflection in our media on what it means to be a mother. Almost. In much the same way “pro-life” anti-choice groups are rarely interested in the actual lives of anyone involved in the pregnancy process, the concept of motherhood being the biggest thing a woman could do is more about making women second-class citizens than anything else. See also: Every article about a woman that lists her leading accomplishment as motherhood, even when she is a rocket scientist making incredible contributions to humanity.    

And full disclosure: I am not a mother and I hope I never will be. (My womb is full of sand!) I have no interest in performing that particular gender role. But maybe that is exactly why I am intrigued by and drawn to Aoi Ikebe’s latest, Nee, Mama. (Or maybe it is just because it’s Aoi Ikebe, and I swoon anytime anything of hers shows up on the shelves of my bookstore.) Possibly my favourite thing about books is that they let me walk into lives completely different from mine and experience the world through a whole new lens. On a fundamental level, they teach me to empathize with and consider perspectives other than my own. And much like I will never be a bullfighter in Spain or an alcoholic copyeditor or a lovestruck goddess, I will never be a mother. But I can read about the experience of being a mother, thanks to Ikebe. Continue reading

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Zassou-tachi yo Taishi wo Idake: Aoi Ikebe

Zassou_IkebeYes, as promised, the second in my hat trick of new books by favourite artists! I have thoughts on Fumi Fumiko’s latest that will have to wait for another day. But have no fear! Like John Wick, they will come whether you like it or not. But in these tumultuous times when it seems like the world is getting more horrible every time you check Twitter, what I need is a reminder that everything is not awful. And while Fumi’s Joso Danshi to Menhera Ojisan is good and interesting and worth reading and all that, it’s also full of people being awful, not necessarily for awful reasons, but just because they are human, and sometimes, human beings don’t get things right even when their intentions are in a good place. Zassou-tachi is untouched by awful things. It is the book you need to soothe your soul when the onslaught of awful becomes too much for you.

The title is a twist on the Japanese saying “Boys, be ambitious (shounen yo taishi wo idake), which it turns out was originally said in English by this old American guy and then translated into Japanese, so that strict teachers and fretful mothers could exhort generations of Japanese schoolboys to get their shit together. I’ve heard and seen this expression any number of times in my many years in Japan, but I always assumed it was some holdover from the militaristic World War II culture that somehow managed to make it into the modern era. I pictured drill sergeants shouting it as they sent young men and boys off on kamikaze missions or something. It sounds ominously euphemistic for “go die for the emperor”, and I never understood why it was still in use these days. Until reading this book! I started googling the saying for a little insight into why Ikebe would use it as a springboard for her own title, and I stumbled upon the weird world of a white man founding a university in Hokkaido. Continue reading

Princess Maison: Aoi Ikebe

Princess MaisonAoi Ikebe seems to be challenging herself to ever more difficult topics for the manga she writes. “I wonder if I could write a manga about sewing,” she mused to herself one day, and then turned the idea into six books of Tsukuroitatsu Hito. “That was too easy,” she said later, tapping her pen against her chin. “Now a manga about buying condos, that’s going to be a tough sell.” And then fast forward a year to me, picking up Princess Maison with a raised eyebrow. “A manga about house hunting? I don’t know.” Naturally, I devoured it and can’t wait for the next volume. Ikebe has a gift. I look forward to the day she writes a manga about the person who has to clean all the hair out of the drains at a salon.

Ikebe’s gift is really in seeing what’s going on at home, pulling back the curtains on the mundane to show us that there is a story in everything. That man behind the counter at the convenience store? He rescued a cat from the shelter, but she stalks him between the hours of nine and eleven at night, sometimes attacking him and leaving scars when he does not notice the malevolent light in her eyes soon enough. That woman you always see working at the izakaya by your house? She’s always there because she’s taking any hours she can get to save enough money to buy a place of her own. In this case, her name is Numagoe, and she insists that hers is not a big dream. She doesn’t need anyone but herself to make buying a house happen, after all. Continue reading

Tsukuroitatsu Hito: Aoi Ikebe

Tsukuroitatsu Hito_Aoi IkebeHere is a thing you may not know about me: I really like sewing. I know, I know, all I do here is jabber about books, and my job is reading books and turning them into books in English, but I actually do things that are not related to books. And one of those things is making clothes. When I was little, at least half of the clothes I wore were made by my mom, and I spent a *laht* of time watching her make them and learning by osmosis. I got my first sewing machine for my ninth birthday (because I asked for one; it was not one of those horrible you-should-be-a-lady gifts your grandma gives you), and by the time I reached junior high school and my first Home Ec class, I had been making my own clothes for a few years. So when in that first Home Ec class, my teacher made us sew on paper to learn to sew in a straight line, I was rolling my eyeballs so far back in my head, they spun right around to the other side.

When I moved to Japan, I couldn’t take my machines with me (that first move across the ocean was supposed to be a couple of years at most, so I only took whatever would fit in my allotted two suitcases), but you can’t keep a seamstress down. Within a couple of months, I was borrowing the machine of a teacher I worked with to sew new covers for the hideous dusty rose sofa I inherited with my rural apartment. And that was my first contact with Japanese sewing culture, which is, like so many other aspects of Japanese culture, both similar to and totally different from the sewing culture I was familiar with. Something so simple as the pedal I was used to pressing on with my foot turned into a lever I pushed on with my hand. Because J-peeps were more likely to be sitting on the floor. It was weird.

But perhaps now you can understand the pure delight I felt at stumbling upon Tsukuroitatsu Hito, a manga with a woman sewing on the cover. At last, my true loves of books and sewing had come together! The only question I had when buying it was why I hadn’t I learned about it sooner since volume one came out in 2011 and I only came across it last year. They even made a movie about it! It is a thing, this manga. A manga about sewing. Continue reading