I’m sure I’m not the only one mentally time travelling to this time last year lately as the anniversary of WHO’s declaration of a pandemic approaches, bringing the end of normal as we then knew it. I’m prone to this habit at the best of times, like “On this day last month, I was on a plane to Taiwan” or “It’s been a year to the day since I bought these shelves.” I’m not generally much for looking into the past—I’m usually more about the present moment and my ever looming deadlines—but for some reason, a glance at the calendar will occasionally send me to a very specific moment in the past and often a very trivial one that could do without being remembered. (See above re: shelf purchase.)
But of course, having been trapped in my Toronto apartment for nearly a year now, the time travel feels much more real. This time last year, I was still noodling around in Nakano, concerned about the growing threat of the corona virus, but more because it was getting impossible to find any masks in any of the shops because people were stockpiling them than through any real fear of contracting the disease. Although the threat did grow more real after the taxi driver corona virus boat party. (Yes, I avoided taxis after that.) But I was still doing my usual rounds of the bookstores, looking for the newest volumes in favourite series and enticing new releases that I’d never heard of before, picking up novels and manga to weigh down my suitcases upon my return to Canada.
I’m still working out how to get my fix of J-books on this side of the ocean. I had a good system going over the summer with the help of honto.jp and EMS shipping, but then they shut down all EMS deliveries to Canada at the end of November. So the struggle to get the books from over there to over here began again. Fortunately, I have friends who love me and one of them kindly sends me a trickle of small packages to keep the books flowing. Sudo Yumi’s latest arrived in just such a small box, happily packaged with some butter peanuts from Family Mart because those are the best peanuts in the entire world and I would die without them. Weirdly, a mere day after the two books that make up this story arrived, a kind reader commented on another post here to recommend Yume no Hashibashi to me. Serendipity! (Thank you, Sigurðr!)
I have been waiting so long! I was beginning to think that Ikebe Aoi had hung up her manga hat and gone into a more lucrative, less punishing industry. After all, the last volume of Princess Maison came out in early 2019, which as we all know is approximately thirty-six years ago if you count the Year of Plague. So you can imagine my delight when I saw the announcement of her new series in Feel Young this spring, back when North America was still busy ignoring the fact that a pandemic was on the way because it was only happening in Asia and as we all know, Asia is separated from the rest of the world by an impenetrable barrier so there was no concern of a contagious virus landing on this side of the ocean. (Yes, I am mad at how Canada had at least two months of warning that this was coming and still managed to be caught totally off-guard by the plague.)
The cover of the issue of Feel Young with the first chapter of Branch Line does announce that it is Ikebe’s “comeback series”, so maybe she did step away from the manga grind for a while. Either way, I’m so very glad she’s back. I’ve missed her understated tellings of deeply emotionally resonant stories. And of course, she hits that mark so hard in the first volume of Branch Line. I mean, look at that cover. Those eyes practically guarantee that you are going to have some feels while you read this one.
Once upon a time, people gathered in great numbers in large halls in odd corners of cities around the world to browse the fine wares of many a great artist and select from amongst those great works their personal cream of the crop to take out of the great space and into seating areas where they would compare their hauls with like-minded comrades. The great doujin markets truly seem like something of a fairytale as we enter this second Year of Plague. Now the thought of pushing my way down the crowded glasses aisle of Comitia fills me with a kind of existential dread, forcing me to weigh my love of indie comics with my desire to keep living a disease-free existence.
Fortunately, through the gift of the modern age that is internet shopping and my own tendency to put things on a shelf somewhere and forget about them entirely, I can experience the joy of doujinshi without the terror of the market. So welcome back to the long-awaited doujinshi round-up! Pandemic style!
It is a strange thing to jump from the debut work right to the most recent series in the decades-long career of an artist. You see none of the intervening years of slow evolution as they hone and refine their style, just a strange disconnect, two works of art obviously by the same artist but with equally obvious different means of expression at work. In Yamagishi’s case, that first work Arabesque is full of movement, a nearly 700-page love letter to dance, while the last (but hopefully not final) work is Revelation, which depicts a world almost devoid of movement and depth. Art-wise, I mean. The story is plenty deep and nimble.
And it’s a story most of us in the west at least are familiar with, that wacky teenaged warrior Joan of Arc. A peasant girl hears God talking to her and runs off to fight in some war before getting burned at the stake as a witch. And then she gets canonized a few centuries later. That was more or less my understanding before digging into Revelation. I mean, I knew there was a Dauphin in there somewhere and maybe a miracle (otherwise why was she canonized?), but I wasn’t clear on the details. I sure am now, though! Because Yamagishi does not mess around when it comes to retelling history. She gives us dates, names, battles, and all the players scheming and intriguing behind the scenes. I think this is the most French history and geography I’ve ever studied in my life, and at university, I minored in French.
Sakuraba Kazuki is one of those authors always dancing around the edges of my mind. I’ve translated a couple of herbooks and even interpreted for her during one wild, weird week in Sharjah, and not only is she a great writer, she is also a great person who thoughtfully Lines me about new vegan shops that open up in Tokyo because she remembers that I am vegetarian and always on the lookout for new places to eat in the city of great food. And because I like her and am also a hustling freelancer, I always keep an eye on her work in the hopes of finding something else publishers will want to take a chance on in English.
But I haven’t really dug into her back catalogue that much. Because new work from long-established authors can be a selling point when bringing projects to publishers. And because a large part of her back catalogue is the GoSick series, which has already had its time in the translation sun, so there is no point in trying to shop that around to anyone now. But one day around this time last year, back when the pandemic was only just a twinkle in Wuhan’s eye and the Diamond Princess had yet to dock at Yokohama and fuel anxiety and exasperation among Tokyo residents, back when I was still in the country with no real concerns other than my upcoming deadlines, I was noodling around in my local bookstore to avoid those deadlines when I spotted the bunko version of Sakuraba’s Watashi no Otoko. I picked it up. I put it back down. I picked it up again.
We made it? The longest year is over? Can this be true? Have we actually arrived at the first day of 2021? I would ask what surprises this year holds for us, but honestly, I’d rather no surprises at all. I feel like 2020 brought surprises enough to tide us over for a year at least. The only surprise I want is more vaccines sooner than expected and a jab in the arm that lets me cram myself into a flying metal tube once more and head back to the great bookstore across the ocean or—as you might know it—Japan. So happy new year, friends in reading. I wish you serene days free of pandemic or plague.
It feels appropriate to stumble into a new year with the story of a woman stumbling into a new life. Nire (affectionately known as Nireko) is twenty-eight and living at home again after moving out for three years to live with her boyfriend. Obviously, things did not end well. They didn’t end well at the company she worked at, either, which was on the sketchy side of the law and had her working far too many hours with some abusive colleagues. So she threw away the life she was supposed to want of partnered bliss and gainful employment, and got herself a part-time job at the umbrella studio of her childhood love and still-current obsession, Kiyota. But as much as she loves Kiyota and making umbrellas, her family are brush makers and she is the logical heir to the family vocation, given that both of her older sisters are married with actual careers.
Yes! It’s really happening! The dream I dared not to speak aloud (but instead wrote it down on these pages) has come true: a new book in the world of Yamauchi. And not only is Rakuen no Karasu a new story about the Yatagarasu we have come to know and love so deeply, it’s the first in a new series; i.e. more books to come! Truly we are blessed. Abe’s generous mercy knows no bounds. I did enjoy her literary outing away from Yamauchi—a little number called Hatsugen that I didn’t write about for some reason, most likely because I got busy and its brain time slot slid by, leaving it unbattled here—and I would like to see more non-Yamauchi work from her. But let’s be honest, friends, I need to inject these crow people stories straight into my veins, so I’m always going to be rooting for more of them.
This new series starts twenty years after the crown prince took a wife and fought the great monkey war in thefirstseries. But it begins in our world with the reading of a will and the allotment of business tycoon Yasuhara Sakusuke’s estate when he is at last pronounced dead seven years after his mysterious disappearance. The youngest and most fuck-up-est of his adopted children, Hajime, is bequeathed a mountain with one curious condition: he must not sell the mountain until he understands why the mountain must never be sold. Hajime does not want a mountain, but his siblings all agree that their father gave it to him because he was the one most in need of serious assets, given that they have also become industry tycoons and he runs a smoke shop, and insist that he accept the inheritance. So he does, and within days, he is getting visits from businessmen very keen on acquiring his mountain. Before he has a chance to decide what to do with his newfound mountain wealth, a mysterious woman appears and demands he come with her. So he does because Hajime is a man who goes where the wind takes him.
Feeling a little more pained than usual at the pandemic as the first anniversary of my last flight to Tokyo comes and goes, and I face the unpleasant prospect of an entire winter in Canada, something I have not experienced for twenty odd years. Acquaintances in my apartment building keep asking if I’ve gotten a winter coat yet and telling me that they’re selling out because of all the snowbirds who are also stuck in the icy tundras. And while their concern is sweet and their knowledge of parka sales odd, I am pleased to assure them and all of you that I have a proper winter coat because in addition to being an Old, I am a Cold and don my cosy vegan down the second the temperature drops below five degrees in Tokyo. I did not, however, have proper winter boots because it has snowed approximately once a year in Tokyo for the many years that I have been there, and only once in recent memory did it stick on the ground for more than an hour or two. (That was a powerful storm a couple years ago. Snow everywhere! The likes of which I’ve never seen in the city, although I saw much, much worse during my time in Akita. Aah, the snow-covered north!)
Fortunately, I have friends who love me and send me care packages of essential items like yuzu sencha and Country Ma’am cookies, and access to an online bookstore that will send all the books my heart desires across the ocean to my wintry apartment, although it might take a month or two of travel time. To make up for the lack of in-person bookstore experience, I’ve been randomly selecting new releases that catch my eye for those book boxes, and it’s been working out surprisingly well so far. My rule of judging books by their covers proves true once again with Class X, a book I knew nothing about from a publisher I’d never heard of. The copy on the spine of the obi (where there is not usually copy) reads “girl meets psychic ability”, and well, yes, that’s basically it. I might add “with surprise yuri” to that descriptor, though.
Earthlings, Murata Sayaka’s second novel in English, is out at last in (what I’m sure is) a magnificent translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori, so perhaps all you monolinguals who are at last getting a taste of the darker side of Murata’s work can understand that I picked up her new (when I bought it) novel, Kawarimi, with some trepidation. I’m a huge fan of her work, obviously—if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t devote so many of these brainbattles to her novels—but the only thing you can be sure of when opening a Murata novel is that there will be something in there to traumatize or horrify you. I’m still not over the ending of Earthlings. Which is definitely not to say that that book or the rest of her oeuvre is not worth reading. You just need to be in the right headspace to tackle it.
Even in that headspace, Kawarimi comes at readers with a new and surprising weirdness. Murata came up with the basic bones of the story with playwright Matsui Shu, and then he turned it into a play while she turned it into a novella. The play was staged in a few cities last year right after the release of the book, and I’m still vexed that I arrived later than usual in Tokyo last winter so that I didn’t find out about the play until it was too late to get tickets. I briefly considered travelling to the show in Kyoto or Kobe, but then remembered that I am not made of money and so gave up on seeing the play. Having at last read Murata’s version of the story, though, I’m very curious about how Matsui staged this insanity and how it differed from Murata’s novella.
If you live in Japan long enough, you will inevitably encounter the (inevitably) white (almost always) men who will start flipping tables if you say the slightest critical word about your adopted homeland. If you mention that it might be nice if a different political party took the reins every once in a while, they will haughtily inform you that the political landscape here is different and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to live here. When you suggest that women should be paid equal wages and not be harassed in so many different ways the term “sexual harassment” no longer covers it and expressions like “maternity harassment” have to be coined, they will yell at you to keep your Western feminism out of Japan’s business, and if you’re so unhappy with the plight of women, maybe just go back to your own country already. If you can’t make it to Japan (and who can in these pandemic times?), you can find the same conversation playing out on Twitter wherever there is a woman espousing an opinion and a white guy who has watched one (1) season of an obscure anime.
The thing that surprised me, though, upon returning to Canada after my first decade in Japan was how prevalent this garbage thinking was on this side of the ocean, as well. I once criticized Toronto’s transit system because it is bad and ineffective in a number of demonstrable ways, and a white man immediately piped up to inform me that it was the best in Canada, so what more did I want? Which is a weird and absurd argument to stop trying to have nice things in this life. Ask for change and people tell you to go back where you came from. And if they can’t make you gtfo, they tell you it’s better than the darkest timeline, so we should all be grateful.
But you criticize places because you want them to be better, because you want everyone to have a good life. It’s not about shitting on something for the sake of shitting on it. Joe Sacco’s Paying the Land is a great example of this, of the empathy and humanity that people are trying to bring to these discussions about where our countries fail us and how they could be doing better. He goes all the way up to the farthest north of Canada and through interviews with the First Nations people there, thoroughly explores the institutional and systemic failures and cruelties that led to the current, terrible situation for so many First Nations in Canada, not just the Dene and other northern peoples.