Japan: One Year Later

by Rebecca Silverman, Jul 10th 2012

Japan – One Year Later
by Rebecca Silverman

 

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 hit the Pacific coast of Japan near Tohoku. The strongest ever recorded there, it and its accompanying tsunami caused at least 15,854 deaths with over 3,000 more missing. Nuclear meltdowns occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The earth shifted on its axis both literally and figuratively as thousands of peoples' lives were displaced and destroyed. While people around the world came together to help the stricken nation, most could do nothing more than send what money they could and marvel at the terrible destructive power of nature. It filled the news for awhile, then slowly got moved to the back as new events took over.

Aid comes in many forms, and often the hardest part of getting it is to make people realize that just because a story has left the front pages, it has not been resolved. Though it has been over a year since the disaster, the affected areas are still trying to pull themselves back together. French manga publisher Kaze, sister company to Viz and publishers of the French editions of such titles as Kuroke's Basket and Heartbroken Chocolatier, took a creative approach to this issue. Under the direction of David Guelou and Raphael Pennes, the company compiled an anthology of stories covering the aftermath of the quake and the tsunami, also including interviews with the Japanese creators about the day of the disaster. Drawn entirely by Japanese artists and written by a combination of French and Japanese authors, the eight stories in the book describe the horrors and fears that marked the events and the long climb back from disaster. Told with pathos and sensitivity, each story takes a different emotion, minute, or individual history and gives us a snapshot of that particular moment in time. From “Tadaima,” written and drawn by Katsura Takada, which tells the story of a young salaryman trying to get home to his pregnant wife to “The Survivor,” written by French author Yasmine and illustrated by Ken Takahashi, linking the survival of a young woman with that of her city, the tales combine hope and despair in almost the same breath. Other stories include the quietly heartbreaking “A Centenarian at Fukushima,” the everyday (yet somehow not) “To Live,” and the fan relevant “An Otaku in Sendai.” All of the tales put a very human face on the tragedy, and proceeds from each copy sold go to help the Red Cross in Japan.

There are plans to translate the volume into other languages, although as of now it is only available in French. If you have any proficiency in that language (high school level should be enough to get you a basic understanding of most of the stories), I urge you to pick up a copy. Japan: One Year Later lends  the earthquake the concept of mono no aware, something so sad that it becomes beautiful. While there is nothing beautiful about the tragedies of March 11, 2011, there is power in the way the stories are told and beauty in the strength portrayed. Through them we are able to see that what happened in Japan was not just a far-away headline, a photo on the news – it was something that happened to people. As people, we need to remember this, and perhaps that is this book's greatest strength: through reading it we come to understand in some small way the scope of what really happened when the world turned upside down.


Interview:
Kaze manga
Un an après

(All answers by Raphael Pennes except when noted differently)

 

ANN: What was your goal for this collection?

David: A lot of noble endeavors were made in order to help the victims but they were done by foreigners. Raphael and I had the same idea: an initiative where Japanese would express themselves artistically and depict situations that THEY had imagined or felt or even simply envisioned graphically. And maybe the rest of the world would understand what they went through and not what we thought they went through.

Do you believe that it will humanize the tragedy for those who were not there? Is that why you included the interviews?


We included the interview because we thought it was important to give each author a chance to explain how they felt at the time of the event and what kind of feeling they have just 1 year after the dramatic event. It was also to give them a small opportunity to express the reason why they accepted to participate to this project, and give a short presentation of themselves to the readers.

Would you like to see this book translated into other languages?


We are actually in discussion with several publishers, especially our sister companies in the United States, Germany… and some licensees of our own publishing licensing division in Europe, so the book will definitively be published internationally. The reason we couldn't cross publish simultaneously, is simply a matter of timing in production. The book was finished just few days before going to print.

Do you think that "Un an apres" could have international impact, especially concerning the human faces of the tragedy?


We had believed since day 1 of the project that this editorial initiative could work anywhere in the world, as the story and feeling the authors expressed are universal. In addition, every single person felt astonished by the Tsunami waves or the explosion of the nuclear plant in Fukushima, regardless of whether they were Japanese, American or European.

How did you go about soliciting stories for the book? Was it difficult to convince writers and artists to contribute?

David: I had worked with Japanese artists for a while when I threw this idea at them. Some were already planning on doing something digitally, others got onboard with an astonished feeling that gaijins should be at the starting point of such an initiative. Some artists wrote for themselves, two writers joined in and three writers including myself wrote about subjects that we perceived as important to Japanese citizens but not necessarily obvious to western readers.

The image that begins "La survivante" (“The Survivor”), with the heroine waking up in the rubble, seems somehow reflective of the reaction of the nation to the disaster. Do you think that there is a metaphor there for a larger understanding of how shaken Japan was?

Yasmine: When I began writing LA SURVIVANTE this first image, one of a young woman  struggling against darkness to climb back to the surface, was, for me, very important. The parallel between her survival and that of her city, Sendai, is present throughout the story. It really was my intention to put the reader through the girl's personal experience but also imagine what it could feel like on the scale of an entire people. It is therefore correct to perceive this image as the ascension of an entire nation. But as she rises out of the rubble, she expresses this sentence « sometimes, only by abandoning darkness do we discover the end of the world ». This is still true for Japan. Because even if it's been a year since the catastrophe took place, there is still much to be done for a population that still suffers the consequences of this dramatic event.

Most of "La survivante" feels more like an illustrated poem, or rather, a series of tanka separated by images, than what most Westerners think of as manga. Do you think that its first person narration makes it a more personal story that might more easily bring home to readers how devastating the quake was? About the guilt that survivors may have felt?

Yasmine: The unconventional nature of this literary work gave me a rather great deal of freedom regarding my story's storytelling. It's a manga anthology but, above all, it's a tribute. It was very difficult to figure out how to write this story while respecting the pain of the victims and most importantly the survivors. I was afraid of « betraying » them, of not knowing how to illustrate with enough accuracy what seems inconceivable for a lot of people: proximity to death, to the end. I therefore decided to implicate myself literally in this, as if I were writing a diary. As I wrote, I suffered. I wanted to be as sincere as possible by remembering the painful moments in life, when we lose all hope. This is probably why LA SURVIVANTE seems rather more like a confession than manga, in the strict sense of the term. If I were as honest as possible, if I forgot the indecency and shamefulness of certain feelings, then I would get closer to the emotional truth. When I finished my story, I felt uneasy, shocked and sad. I was in Sendai, I was a survivor. I told myself that if I could persuade myself that the readers would also manage to understand the complex feelings of this young woman and through her, those of all of the survivors that saw so many people die without understanding why they are still alive.


"Vivre" (“To Live”) was a story that particularly touched me with its portrayal of the casual cruelty the protagonist experiences at the hands of the other students and his well-meaning teacher. Was there one story that you found to be especially effective? Why?


This story is powerful because it expresses the feelings of a teenager that experiences the events and has to live at school surrounded by students that have no idea at all how he feels and what  his family life has been since the disappearance of his brother. This is a mirror for us, French people as we mostly think we know and understand what the Japanese have experienced and felt during these events. We can easily understand the Japanese discretion that is deeply hidden inside and not easy to express to others.

"Un centenaire a Fukushima" (“A Centenarian in Fukushima”) takes a historic approach to the quake and tsunami, giving us the life view of a man who has seen a lot. Do you think that will make this story more relateable to people who have never experienced such an event, by making them consider what their older relatives may have been through? (For example, my grandmother is 99 and lost friends and family in WWII as a young woman only to see it repeat in Korea and then Vietnam, a comparable situation to that of the protagonist of this story.)


This story was important to show another side of the event, and another tragedy that Japanese people lived because of the nuclear situation in Fukushima. It definitively shows that some people lost more than house, or personal items but definitively their lives and past when they had to leave their houses and cities suddenly.

 "Le symbol de la reconstruction"  (“Symbol of Reconstruction”) is in some ways the most hopeful story in the collection, and also makes an effort to point out the amount of foreign aid received and how helpful that was. Do you think that this will help Western readers understand the role that they themselves are playing by purchasing the book? Or the fact that they can in fact make a difference?
The author of this story [Tetsuya Kawaishi] was the most motivated of all. Probably because he is older and more experienced in life, he has witnessed more overall, that the other artists, who are younger. His story is one of the most positive and what I love about it is definitively the angle of the story showing that the dedication of a few people can make  big difference in the end. So definitively, this story shows I think a very positive effect of being supportive, all at our own level. So I hope readers will read between the lines, and make out that they can make a real difference by purchasing the book and helping raise money for the Red Cross in Japan.

"Un otaku a Sendai" (“An Otaku at Sendai”) makes the case for ordinary people becoming extraordinary in times of need. Is that the message you want to send to your readers? That all of us can help in our own ways, no matter who we are?
David: Precisely. The hero is simply a sentai fan in cosplay when the shockwave hits the city. Simply put, he's basically fantasized of being a hero and now he's faced with a major catastrophe. Be careful what you wish for. So now he's got no powers, no gadgets, he's not even fit physically and he's terrified and overwhelmed. But that doesn't mean he can't be a hero. In the end, it's our choices that make us who we are.

How did you decide on the order for the stories? Did you deliberately put the two most hopeful at the end?
We had difficulties to choose which one will open the book and which one to end it. Then we tried to alternate the styles and stories the best possible way to be coherent as much as possible. The most hopeful are definitively at the end and it was intentional. This book was made to never forget what happened and to give hope, as this is essential to move on.

 What do you hope your readers will take away with them after reading "Un an apres"?
That life is important and nature can take away everything we have and share, anytime, anywhere. We must cherish what we have, everyday as much as possible. And most importantly, we must take example from the Japanese, who showed again that no matter what happens, they are united when their country is hit by tragedy. They are definitively an example of loyalty and union for me.

Do you think that this book has the ability to reach all people, not just those who are fans of manga ? Do you think that it has classroom applications in a current events or literature context?
We made the book, not as a manga but as a graphic novel that could please all the book readers. The communication was more oriented to please the general public by avoiding too much manga style of advertising, using more noble and simple design. So far, the distribution was also oriented this way, and we reached more general press, cultural TV programs… than we ever did the last 5 years. So in a way, I suppose it was the good thing to do to get a strong visibility and hopefully good sales to support Japanese victims properly.

Thank you for your time and the opportunity to discuss this touching book. I sincerely hope that it will accomplish everything that you hope for.

 

 


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