Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Monokuro Kinderbook

by Jason Thompson,

Episode CLII: Monokuro Kinderbook

It takes a mangaka who breaks the rules to make you realize what the rules are. The first thing that stands out about Kinderbook is the artwork: pages that look like they were scanned from pencils, densely colored in gray tones using watercolor or Photoshop. It looks nothing like conventional manga, and probably it's designed not to be: this style wouldn't look good on the cheap, smeary paper conventional manga is printed on. When Kan Takahama wants to (like in "Minanogawa Blues") she can draw detailed, photorealistic backgrounds like the best of them, but sometimes she draws in an intentionally crude, blurry style: "Over There, Beautiful Binary Suns" and "Five-Legged Shadow" are like sketch-comics, and other stories like "Women Who Survive" are somewhere in between. Getting the idea out there is more important than polish. This is a strange little book, an artbook, a children's book ("Kinderbook" in German) of subtle but strong tales.

Kan Takahama was a fine arts student before she became a mangaka. Her manga career started when her short manga "Mont St. Michel" (not included in this collection) won a contest in Morning magazine. But instead of entering the big leagues of seinen manga magazines, and having her work streamlined and edited and commercialized, Takahama chose to work in underground publications such as Garo. In the collection's one openly autobiographical story, she depicts herself, perhaps tongue in cheek, as the archetypal rebellious, struggling artist ("I'd rather die than sell myself for a few bucks!"). In an interview with a French publication she said her favorite manga was the classic (and in fact, excellent) underground love story Red Colored Elegy, but most of her cited influences are literary authors, not mangaka: Milan Kundera, Charles Bukowski, Raymond Chandler, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Futaro Yamada, Kenzaburo Oe.

"An anthology of unrelated stories on the darker side of life" is how someone on Wikipedia describes Kinderbook. But though the paper it's printed on is dark—dark borders around the artwork, which somehow makes everything seem more serious—saying the stories are all some depressing gloom party is a huge oversimplification. The two themes of the collection are love and age. Takahama (who was in her mid-20s when this book came out) tells stories from the perspective of children, of young adults, and most surprisingly, of the elderly and middle-aged. In sharp contrast to most mangaka who can't draw old people if their life depended on it (you can see 'em struggling with the decision in shojo and shonen manga: generic cute young person or generic, not-even-human-looking old person? Or option #3, a middle-aged person, who's drawn just like a young person except for some lines beside the mouth?), Takahama manages to humanize all her characters, whether they're 7 or 72.

The first story, "Women Who Survive," is the tale of a woman in her 70s, a painter and gallery owner, still smoking cigarettes in cafés and listening to George Gershwin as she assesses an artist's portfolio for her final show before her retirement. "I intend to do nothing but draw and wait for death," she tells her friend who's as old as she is, but there's a smile in her voice. "Minanogawa Blues" is the story of a middle-aged bar manager who returns from a trip to Paris fresh from an encounter with a fortune teller: "He predicted that on December 24th…in this place…I'd fall in love with the man of my life!" The manager isn't so much older than a typical josei protagonist, and the story could be something out of a josei or even shojo manga, but there's a twist: when she was a young woman she was in a May-December relationship with a much older man, and her former lover's offscreen death is the kicker that moves the story along. "You were in his thoughts up to the end," a friend tells her, but her relationship with the dead man is only the lead-in for what follows.

Reading this anthology is a bit like traveling backward and forward through the Seven Ages of Man. The stories of adults in their 30s and 40s are stories of taking care of children, and taking care of aging parents, and secret love affairs. "Red Candles, Futile Love" is set in Amakusa, Kan's hometown, whose beautiful coastline she also drew in Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators. It might also be a sort of autobiographical story, since it's set in the early '80s and features a young girl who would have been Takahama's age at the time; but surely this seductive story of adultery, and mermaids (or are they mermaids?), can't have actually happened in real life. In contrast to the lush artwork of "Red Candles," "Over There, Beautiful Binary Suns" is one of the most sketchily drawn stories in the book. An adulterous couple—a middle-aged man and a younger woman—meet secretly on the beach to have sex, and it's like watching Bill Plympton characters make out: instead of making the characters beautiful, Takahama draws them both as snivelly, blurry, wrinkly masses, every groping, every cheek-licking making the affair look as sordid as it is. "To you I'm just a piece of flesh!" complains the woman. "No, that's not true! You're so lovely I couldn't help myself! For me to love is to feel like making love!" says the man. He tells her he can't divorce his wife, but tries to turn it into a compliment: "If we had gotten married, it never would have lasted. You're still young and beautiful. I'm sure plenty of young men will want you." They cry and laugh, and argue and cry, and joke about having a suicide pact, while meanwhile, two children playing in the dunes overhear their love-cries and draw dirty sketches in the sand.

No less than three of the stories involve some kind of childhood encounter with sexuality (and not in an exploitative reader-titillating way): children reading their fathers' porn magazines, children observing their parents' sexuality, or perhaps discovering their own ("They always have naked girls on that program." "Yeah. And when they come out I call my daddy.") The best story like this, the one that gives the book its title, is "Kinderbook" itself. Sachi is an angry junior-high-age girl who hates the world, walking through life with a defensive glare, embarrassed by her busybody teacher's interference ("Hello Sachi, are you sitting alone? You're so solemn no one dares come near you. Mika, why don't you sit with Sachi today?"). Her only friends are Su Nyon, a Korean girl from another school, and the "Master," a handsome man in his 20s who she and Su Nyon meet after school for cake, yoga lessons and pseudo-mystical life advice that seems to confirm her low opinion of humanity. ("It's true, Sachi. Eight out of every 10 people are stupid. But we're special. You two are the most special girls I've ever met!") It would be a shame to spoil the story any more, but I've never read a better criticism of moe and lolicon. "Highway, Motel, Skyline" is a story of older teenagers. Aiko, the protagonist, yawns through her high school graduation ceremony, then talks with her friend Emi about their plans post-graduation. ("Your boyfriend, Hisamoto, goes to Waseda University, doesn't he? Why don't you live together?" "No, we can't! If we did, no other guy would go anywhere near me!") While her mother lectures her about what to do in college ("Once you begin your studies there make sure you get your training in English, accounting and secretarial skills out of the way first…"), Aiko can't wait to get out of the house and spend the night with her boyfriend, a tough-looking dude with bleached hair who's waiting for her in his car with a huge bouquet of flowers and his idea of the perfect graduation gift. 50% of mangaka would have written this as a story of the dangers of growing up (the "bad boyfriend"), the other 50% would have written it as a nostalgic story of young love (the "good boyfriend"), but Takahama does neither, and as a result, the story feels real.

One reviewer on Goodreads complained about Takahama's plots: "The slice-of-life plotlessness seldom came together enough to feel like a story." I disagree with the idea that her stories are "plotless"; it's true that they rarely follow a conventional setup-climax-resolution storyline, and one or two are very short, but like good prose fiction, they usually go on just long enough to tell us what we need to know about the characters, to give us a window on their lives. We'll never know exactly what happens to the two girls in "Kinderbook" or the couple in "Highway, Motel, Skyline," but the wheels have already been set in motion, our imaginations must fill in the rest. For that matter, I also disagree with the word "slice-of-life", at least as a genre descriptor: when I hear that word applied to a manga I usually think of some actually plotless manga about mellow days doing nothing, like Yotsuba!. These so-called "slice of life" manga are about the comfort of the familiar and the everyday, the reassurance that everything's OK. Takahama doesn't give this reassurance. In that way, at least, her stories deserve the word "slice of life" more than other "slice of life" manga. To my mind, her vignettes are actually more memorable and satisfying than her few stories that have more definitive endings. (My one complaint is that the otherwise exquisite Fanfare/Ponent Mon edition could use some translation notes: it'd be useful, for instance, to know without knowing Japanese that the "Funnyface" in the already cryptic story "Funnyface's Family" refers to the manga Kimengumi.)

The Wikipedia author saying that the book was "dark" does have a point; there are some very dark stories mixed among the brighter ones. "On Past Love and Drinking in Sips," a short story about Kan's grandmother, begins with "My grandmother usually has a drink alone before going to bed. She says it helps her forget her fear she might not wake up again after she falls asleep." In "Five-Legged Shadow," another short piece, two little girls' discovery of a dying fish in the shallows is paralleled with the slow deaths of their grandfather and grandmother in the hospital. "Show Our Generation the Way to Survive," the apparently autobiographical story, starts off lighthearted with Kan Takahama's 25th birthday party with all her friends but then suddenly, BAM! It's September 11th and they turn on the TV just in time to watch the World Trade Center collapsing! Unfortunately, this is the one story in the collection that I dislike: even if the WTC bombing really did make Takahama have a nervous breakdown, the story is overly talky, blunt and preachy, from the title onward. (Besides, Wikipedia says Takahama's birthday is in April…)

One of the notable things about "Show Our Generation" (whether or not it's a true story) is that several of the characters are non-Japanese. In fact, foreign characters often appear in Takahama's work. The little text pieces between the stories in Kinderbook, (apparently) autobiographical bits about people Takahama knows, often involve foreigners ("So, who's from Taiwan and studies in Japan, is a very good cook. The other day he invited me over for some Chinese medicinal soup made from a hen he had slaughtered himself.") Her work has an international flavor; she is considered a part of the "nouvelle manga" movement started by French artist Frederic Boilet, with whom she collaborated on Mariko Parade, their probably-not-autobiographical tale of a French-Japanese relationship. In fact, Takahama is one of those rare manga artists who is more well known in Europe than in Japan or America. Her French Wikipedia page is longer than her Japanese one, and she doesn't even have one in English. Her recent works like L'Eau Amère ("The Bitter Water") and Two Espressos are (frustratingly) available in France and Spain, but not here.

Fanfare/Ponent Mon, which translated Mariko Parade and Kinderbook, also translated her second anthology Awabi, but for some reason it was never published (I even had the review PDF at one point). Perhaps rights issues have something to do with it: after the death of Garo magazine in 2002, Takahama apparently had trouble regaining the rights to her work from that period, most of which is republished in Kinderbook. For that matter, according to French Wikipedia, the publication of Takahama's works has been delayed by things such as depression and family problems, but she seems to be working currently and is actively updating her twitter. Takahama's work combines fascinating, unique art with stories that are 1,000,000x more interesting than some Eisner-nominated mangaka I could mention. I hope more of her work is translated. I'm jealous of the rest of the world for getting more Kan Takahama than we do.
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