Akogare: Kawakami Mieko

For the last few years, every October, I’ve been working with an author from Japan for a week or so as their voice in English, interpreting at the big public events for the Toronto International Festival of Authors, but also over lunches or signings or random encounters on the street. I know other kinds of interpreting are different and involve far less contact with the client, but the kind of interpreting I do is generally quite intensive, involving many hours of basically just hanging out with an artist for every hour I am on stage with them performing.

But for most of the year, I am translating, sitting alone in front of my computer with my books, puzzling out the best way to say in English what the artist is trying to say. So the sudden intense human contact that comes with interpreting can be jarring, but in a good way. Like a sudden flare in the sky that illuminates all the reasons why I do the translations in the first place. The ability to reach people, to cross language and culture and make a reader feel something new, to make them think in a new way, to offer them a bigger world in the pages of a book—that’s what we do when we translate, but sitting alone in our respective translation hovels, we rarely see the readers who are having all these feels, who are living in a changed world because of a work we translated. But interpreting is a chance to see firsthand the effect of art in this world. Interpreting for the artist is when I get to really see the effect of translation, and it gives me fuel and motivation to return to that work.

It’s the human contact part of this equation that is so satisfying, and of course, in this the Year of Plague, it’s that human contact that we all must go without. My October event is no exception. This year’s Japanese guest at TIFA is Kawakami Mieko, and longtime readers of these brain battles will know that I am a big fan of her work, so I was very excited to learn that she would be coming this year to promote her first full-length novel translation into English, Breasts and Eggs. And then everything went online, and now we are all speaking into the Zoom void. (I gave a lecture on translation this summer, and it was eerie. Most participants had their videos off to save bandwidth, so I felt like I was alone, telling my computer about all my translation thoughts.) So although the event will still happen, like everything else this year, it will be different. No signings, no seeing the flash of insight on a listener’s face, no hotel lobby coffee getting cold on the table in front of me while I interpret for a media interview.

One thing that is not different, that can’t be different if it’s me interpreting, is the descent into stalkerdom to prepare. I am busy reading up on Kawakami, listening to podcasts and interviews (including one I myself did with her years ago!) (but the article it was for got cut…), reading everything I can by and about her. Including her 2015 novel Akogare which I picked up immediately when it came out, read part of, and then put down for reasons that are lost to the sands of time now. When I started Ms Ice Sandwich, I had a jolt of déjà-vu, certain I had read these words before but not exactly sure where. And then I remembered the aborted attempt at Akogare and pulled the book from the back of my shelf where it had been languishing. 

Although “Ms Ice Sandwich” is published in English as a novella, the tale of Mugihiko (the nameless narrator gets a name in the second act) is actually the first shorter section of a novel. While Mugihiko’s fixation on the supermarket sandwich lady and his developing friendship with Hegatea (Tooti in English, for pertinent reasons) takes place in the fourth grade, the second chapter “Ichigo Jam kara Haha wo Hikeba” jumps ahead a couple years to grade six, when both Mugi and Hegatea are on the verge of adolescence and all the baffling confusion that comes with that. And Hegatea is the narrator now, living alone with her dad after her mother died when she was still a small child. She’s thick as thieves with Mugi now, hanging out at school and their regular Friday movie nights at her house with her film critic dad. 

Whereas “Ms Ice Sandwich” focuses on Mugi’s relationship with his dying grandmother and his compulsive drawing of the supermarket sandwich lady, “Ichigo” examines Hegatea’s relationship with her father and her dead mother and her coming to terms with loss and her own place in this world. Mugi and Hegatea are no doubt drawn to each other because of their complimentary losses that separate them from the other kids their age—she has lost a mother, he has lost a father—and the whole novel is something of a meditation on what it means to live when someone else is dead, the longing we feel for the things that could’ve been, the futures we could have lived, the people we could have loved. There’s a yearning in these pages that’s both deeply childish and profoundly old at the same time, as if we spend a few decades in the middle of our lives not puzzled and taken up with the problems of life and death, before sinking back down into them. 

Kawakami somehow perfectly captures the inner narrative of these children, as they talk to themselves and wonder how the world is the way it is. And the way they talk to each other, the way they flit between adult and child in the liminal space of early adolescence, is painfully perfect, sending me back to my own self at twelve. I think the thing that made my heart crack in two was how Hegatea sleeps under the Christmas tree in the living room, the Christmas tree that has been standing in the living room since her mother was still alive. It’s such a perfect detail and expresses so much about the world she lives in, the things that are on her mind however subconsciously. There’s a strange beauty in Hegatea’s half of the book, and I wish we could see the whole thing in translation so the two halves could play off each other the way they were clearly meant to. Ms Ice Sandwich is brilliant, but in the end, it’s only half a book. 

Zenryaku, Zenshin no Kimi: Torikai Akane

Zenryaku_TorikaiLet’s begin with my usual lament and just get it out of the way: I can’t believe such an incredible artist is still unpublished in English. Torikai Akane has put out book after book of amazing beauty, art and text meshing so perfectly that I am frequently overwhelmed reading her work and have to put the book down for a while to process what I’m seeing on the page. Not to mention that she is always tackling difficult and often uncomfortable topics in her work so that it’s hard not to wince from time to time while reading her. Her work is deeply feminist and focussed on women and our experiences in Japanese society, shining a painful light on many things most people would rather look away from. And of course, the cynical part of me knows that this is a large part of the reason she is not published in English and will likely never be unless some indie publisher starts championing her cause. I’ve said it again and again, and it’s an obvious truth in the manga industry on this side of the ocean: josei gets the short shrift every single time.

It doesn’t help that Torikai’s art is also far from what the average North American consumer of manga expects to see on the pages of a book here. Detailed lines, realistic character designs, an elegant beauty that’s removed from the kind of manga that makes the bestseller list over here. And yet she finds a home and a following in Japan that allows her to keep publishing her difficult tales of sex and sexuality and relationships and society. (Mostly by publishing in seinen magazines since josei is also underappreciated in Japan. Art targeted at women is denigrated around the world!) Continue reading “Zenryaku, Zenshin no Kimi: Torikai Akane”

Policing Black Lives: Robyn Maynard

web_image_-_book_cover_0Living in Canada unfortunately often means living with one eye on the United States, whether you like it or not. Their population dwarfs ours and their cultural industries have tentacles reaching out to every spot on the globe, so if you happen to live right next door, the tentacles have a stranglehold. You grow up watching American TV, listening to American music, reading American books and magazines, and unwittingly absorbing a lot of information about American history, government, and legal structures. You also grow up puzzled about a lot of it, if you’re anything like me. Do they really wear shoes in the house like in every TV show? (Upon moving to Japan, I learned the answer to this is yes, they do wear shoes in the house. I will never not be stunned by this.) Are there really so many different accents, or is that just a TV thing? What is the purpose of homecoming? Why are there so many high school football teams? How much of the Sweet Valley High novels are true? (I was a very big Sweet Valley High fan as a child, but the many proms baffled me.)

And of course, whenever anything outrageous happens, we hear all about it up here. And outrageous things have been happening a whole lot more these days. Global pandemic, murder hornets, authoritarian governments, the not-so-slow slide into fascism—2020 is a lot. It’s a lot more in the US, which has prompted the usual reactions from the majority of Canadians. There’s the “meanwhile in Canada” crowd, who try to play up how great it is here compared with the US by tweeting pictures of the prime minister with a panda or smugly noting that our top news story is a moose in someone’s backyard. And then there are the people who shout indignantly about the injustices in America, yell at American politicians or whoever on social media, and generally get caught up in the drama, full of outrage on behalf of Americans everywhere. Continue reading “Policing Black Lives: Robyn Maynard”

Elle qui se laissait dévorer/Sometimes in the City: 61Chi

61chicoversBack in a time unfathomably long ago, so long ago that it seems impossible that I was alive during that mythical age and yet am still alive today to tell this tale, I travelled across the globe in a shining metal beast to a land I had never visited before, Taiwan. I travelled there with a breezy carelessness that I may never again possess. The Golden Comic Awards, a government-sponsored celebration of all things comics, invited representatives of TCAF to be a part of those festivities, to come and talk about comics and festivals in Taipei, so a certain comics impresario asked if I would join him to speak about what makes TCAF great. And I said sure because I had never been to Taiwan before, and there was nothing that would make me think twice about spending fourteen hours nestled up against total strangers in the economy section of a plane. Imagine!

Much of Taipei confused my brain with its Japanese-ness—Family Marts and chu-hais and Mitsukoshis—so I found myself trying to speak Japanese far too often. All I got in return, naturally, was extra perplexed stares. Except for one day of meetings in the days before the big awards ceremony when we struggled to communicate in English with some Taiwanese comics people, and it turned out that one of those comics people spoke Japanese, and from there it was smooth sailing, and I felt oddly grounded in this land that was both familiar and weirdly foreign.

As a delegation, we two TCAFers were wowed and depressed by the level of government support for comics as an art form that we saw in Taipei. They have a whole building! With artists’ residencies! The awards ceremony had not one but two legit pop stars performing songs specially commissioned for the comics awards! The volunteer seated next to me who was whisper-interpreting what was happening (since the ceremony was entirely in Chinese except for when the host made a point of switching to English to greet the “foreign delegation” and the TV cameras panned over us as we waved because yes, the ceremony was broadcast on the Taiwanese equivalent of CBC or NHK) clutched my arm and squealed when the flesh-and-blood pop star took the stage. (The other one was a vtuber, which was the first time I ever heard that term because I am an Old.) Continue reading “Elle qui se laissait dévorer/Sometimes in the City: 61Chi”

Veil: Kotteri

Veil_KotteriFriends! As I write, Magician A is almost fully funded. It’s so exciting to see people getting excited about this book I love! And gratifying! I was sure there was an audience for a book like this in English, but it is one thing to know that in your head and another to see the love your precious baby is getting out there in the world. If you haven’t already pledged to get a slightly smutty treat early next year, maybe you could do so now?? I really want everyone to read the interview I did with Ishitsuyo earlier this year, but that’s a stretch goal, so we need to get those numbers up. Pep talk! Then you can hear all about how I went to a shrine and paid a priest to pray for the success of the English translation! (Yes, it was a weird experience.)

And now that I have sufficiently promoted myself, how about we talk about some books? The internet is doing some interesting things to the world of manga. I’ve commented before on the trend of including the number of Twitter followers an artist has on the obi of manga, and we’re seeing more and more of the series artists are publishing independently on pixiv or their own platforms being picked up by publishers and released in book form, the most notable of which is probably My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness. That book (and its sequels) exploded in a way that I think no one really expected, no matter how many views Kabi’s work had gotten on pixiv. The (well deserved) success of Lesbian opened the door to a wave of autobiographical essay manga spilling in from various corners of the internet. And fictional manga was soon to follow. But while the memoir comics tend to stick to a monotone colour palette, the fiction was branching out and experimenting with colour and form in a way that was not exactly done traditionally in manga. Continue reading “Veil: Kotteri”

Shinzo: Akiko Okuda

shinzoI 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. Continue reading “Shinzo: Akiko Okuda”

Doujinshi Round-Up: What Happened to 2018??

Kenji_Yoshinaga.jpgThat was last year, right? 2018? It feels like a lifetime since then. Humanity’s slow slide into extinction is picking up steam, and it’s honestly hard to keep track of which disaster is happening when and where anymore. The US is basically about to execute women for having abortions, Ontario has decided autistic people don’t matter, Australia just voted to destroy the Great Barrier Reef (essentially), and while the earth burns, scientists are bringing decapitated pigs back to life. And this is all just in the last couple weeks! How could I possibly be expected to remember that there was a whole year of life before all of this??

And it’s so easy in the face of all this madness to throw up our hands in despair and wonder why art even matters when we’re all going to burn in the planetary dumpster fire that is climate change. But this is when art matters the most! The stories we tell and the way we connect through art gives us a reason to keep on fighting when things seem most dire. Plus, the onslaught is just too much, and sometimes, you need to escape into fantastical man-man action. So welcome to the doujinshi round-up for the lost year of 2018! Continue reading “Doujinshi Round-Up: What Happened to 2018??”

Mukui wa Mukui, Batsu wa Batsu: Takehito Moriizumi

Mukui_MoriizumiIn preparation for my imminent return to the land of sweaty summer (by the time you read this, I will already be sweating through all my clothes and trying to get my Japan summer legs back), I’ve been trying to read through the stack of books that comprise the unscalable Mount Bookstoberead. It’s hard to enjoy wandering through my favourite bookstores and buying new books when the spectre of the books I’ve already bought looms so large. Mostly, this has meant digging into the latest volumes of ongoing series that I’m already reading (Never stop being incredible, Tongari Boshi no Atelier!), but as my good luck would have it, the second and final volume of Moriizumi’s Mukui wa Mukui, Batsu wa Batsu arrived in the most recent package of books, which meant that I could finally read the first volume and devour the story all in one go.

This story was planned as complete in two volumes right from the start, and knowing that, I figured I’d rather read it as one because I am incredibly prone to forgetting the smaller details of plots over time. I also wait to read slower moving longer series, too (I’m looking at you, Dead Dead Demons) because after six months, I can’t remember why anyone is really doing any of the little things they’re doing to further the larger broad strokes of the plot that I actually remember. This is why I keep spreadsheets of the longer running series that I translate. With something like the glacial release schedule of Blue Morning, I can barely remember the characters’ names by the time I get a new volume to translate. Continue reading “Mukui wa Mukui, Batsu wa Batsu: Takehito Moriizumi”

Louvre no Neko: Taiyo Matsumoto (+ Saho Tono)

Louvre_Matsumoto.jpgWe haven’t talked about Taiyo Matsumoto in a while, have we? Which is a damned shame because he is a startlingly brilliant artist, and I wish he’d give us more chances to talk about him. But he is not the fastest artist, and while I have seen things (lovely things!) and know things (exciting things!), I’m not allowed to say anything about any of it, so I have kept my mouth firmly shut about all things Matsumoto since the heartbreaking end of Sunny.

But now! Finally! A new work out in print! Louvre (or Les chats du Louvre as the French subtitle would have it) is the latest in a line of comics commissioned by the great Parisian museum itself together with the publisher Futuropolis. Previous Japanese entries in this notably dude-heavy (one woman in the course of fifteen books? Seriously??) series are Jiro Taniguchi’s The Guardians of the Louvre (a very touching homage to which pops up toward the end of Louvre) and Hirohiko Araki’s Rohan at the Louvre, and it’s clear that Matsumoto with his European influences and interest in pushing the boundaries of manga was maybe the perfect mangaka to join their ranks. How he decided that the perfect story for the Louvre was the surreal, wandering tale of a herd of anthropomorphized stray cats and a little girl, however, will likely remain a mystery for the ages. Continue reading “Louvre no Neko: Taiyo Matsumoto (+ Saho Tono)”

Cafe de Coffee o: Emi Yokoi

Cafe_YokoiI don’t really care that much for food manga, as popular as they seem to be these days, mostly because I’m a vegetarian, so the majority of the food that appears in their pages is utterly unappealing to me. I’m not one of those vegetarians who eats fake meat because she misses eating meat. When I see people eat meat, it’s like watching someone eat cardboard. I mean, sure? You can if you want? But it’s not actually food? So there’s pretty much nothing enticing for me about someone waxing poetic about the delights of pig fat in a bowl of ramen or something. If someone ever did a vegetarian food manga, maybe I’d feel differently about the genre. But until a book like that lands in my hands, I will remain heartily indifferent. (Ironically, I translate a food manga, and I have learned so much more than I ever wanted to know about cooking meat and seafood. Before I started translating this series, I actually was a reader of it but only for the relationship between Kenji and Shiro. I would just flip past the cooking pages. But now, I read them in the greatest of detail and watch videos on how to prepare squid…)

In contrast, I love coffee manga! There aren’t that many of them, which is a damned shame because I would read the hell out of more. For me, the best of the coffee manga is maybe the first one I ever read, Kohi Mo Ippai by Naoto Yamakawa. Just story after story of people taking the time and effort to make coffee and then sit down and enjoy it. There’s just something so relaxing about watching someone take a break like that. And there are so many little stories that weave themselves around the act of making and drinking coffee, of sitting in a café. It’s slice-of-life with a fixed centre: the cup of coffee. Continue reading “Cafe de Coffee o: Emi Yokoi”