Penguins and suits


Book review, from Tokyo – Penguins look like they wear tuxedos. That black and white dress and its assumed importance plays a part in adding to the fun of watching them wobble and hop on land, and then rip through the waters with ease. This connection is open to play, offering good contrast and effect.

Satoe Tone might not have intended to, but 『ペンギンかぞくのおひっこし』 (Pengin kazoku no ohikkoshi, lit. The penguins are moving) does it effortlessly. It tells the story of, well, our avian friends looking for a new place to call home.

The home of this family of 84 is shrinking, so they decide to embark on a journey. In their bowties and top hats, the birds ride the waves on a breakaway iceberg, first venturing South ―I hear there are clear blue seas there, says one. But they find themselves swimming through dark, murky waters.

They then go East, West, and finally North, seeking grasslands teeming with snails, yellow fields of towering dandelions, and forests filled with singing birds. They were disappointed each time, by factories and their billowing chimneys, a bleak gray expanse of sand, and a land of barren trees. Well, no place for us on Earth, they thought.

And so they hop into their balloons and set off for the moon. There the penguins are struck by the sight of the lovely, perfectly round, luminous, blue planet, and decide to return home.

Perched in a tree, they take their hats off to collect dandelion seeds, committed to doing something ―anything― for their beautiful planet.

To drive home the obvious message, Tone ends with a note. The penguins symbolize the first 84 signatories to the Kyoto protocol in 1997. Some countries chase economic progress and lose sight of its impact on the environment, but everyone can do their part ―walk, conserve water and energy― to reduce global carbon emissions.

A simple story for children with a call to do all we can, however small, to stop global warming. Tone uses vivid colours for the worlds the penguins dreamed of, contrasting them starkly with the darkish, gray tones of those they end up in. Flushed in white, the final page conveys both the call to action and hope for building a cleaner, brighter future.

Its funny how sometimes we miss the woods for the trees, or need a reminder of what sits right under our noses. Like the penguins who decide to move, before realizing that the only place for them is, well and truly, this planet we all call home. Well, who else should clean up after but ourselves?

Title: 『ペンギンかぞくのおひっこし』
(Pengin kazoku no ohikkoshi, lit. The penguins are moving) by Satoe Tone
Publisher: Shogakukan, 2017
Translated from the Italian original, also available in Spanish.

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Thicker than water


Book review, from Singapore – Sharon Ismail’s What Sallamah Didn’t Know (2007) tells the heartwarming story of a girl growing up in a kampung (Malay for village) with the people she knew as her family, but later finds out that some things are not what they seem. Painting scenes of life in Singapore from a bygone era vivid in largely monotone palettes, Khairudin Saharom places his illustrations at a comfortable yet accessible distance, rousing both nostalgia and imagination.

The story begins in the night. A sleepy newborn girl bundled in white cloth is given away to a Malay family. We are told that other families in the village had seen this before, and that the receiving family would magically have a new member the next morning.

This new member is named Sallamah.

Sallamah grows up with her siblings in a Malay family. She has a kind elder sister, Muna, who always looks out for her, and a mischievous elder brother Dollah who always picks on her.

At the age of twelve, Singaporeans get their identity cards, or ICs. As a child, I remember this year of my life well – preparing for PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination), a centralized entrance exam for entry into secondary education, that big BCG vaccination needle, finally seeing the last of someone in class, having to part with best friends, and the customary rite of getting my IC, my official photo ID with information based on my birth certificate.

For Sallamah, this rite of passage throws her into confusion – she receives the card of a Chinese girl with an unfamiliar address. Dazed and lost, she stumbles into a game of marbles that Dollah was on the verge of winning, and he says something that strikes deep into her heart. Unable to sleep that night, she overhears her parents talk about not telling the children know.

She turns to her elder sister, who reveals her memories of that night many years ago. Sallamah then realizes that her siblings, and some other children around her, did not really look like their parents either. What she knew and saw was that they lived together, played together, fought with each other, laughed and cried, like children, like family.

Touched by this simple truth that draws on the joys of having family and family life, Sallamah’s story also reminded me that we do not need blood ties to share such moments together.

Adults choose who to marry, to become family. Blood ties are created with offspring. Those lineages continue with children bringing together two formerly separate families, but children have neither the choice of which family to grow up in or of who to have as siblings or parents. That is where, I believe, lies the roots of parents’ responsibility to their children, and how they fulfill that is a journey the family takes together. Simply taking the blood out from the equation does not change it; blood ties are not essential, it is, essentially, a choice.

For Sallamah, her Chinese birth parents chose to give her away, because they had too many mouths to feed, and she was a girl, after all. Because they found this kind Malay couple in a far-off village, Sallamah was able to grow up in the shelter and guidance of her loving parents, the comfort and company of a gentle elder sister, and a place among bickering siblings, the only family she ever knew.

In relation to adoption, in Japan, I hear of a movement to help working parents look out for children, to build a caring community to help nurture the country’s next generation while parents work. The idea is comforting but also worrying because of the inkling that it might fester misguided thoughts of letting parents stay at work and leaving their children to others in the community. Perhaps what it does is to propose an actual, proper safety net, one that Kore-eda’s Shoplifters seemed to promise, but a public movement telling people to do so would have raised some alarm bells. It certainly made me think of social pressure, norms and morals.

Sallamah also prompted thought of how I spend time with my closest and dearest in my busy life. It paints the home as a safe harbour to return to, for company, sympathy, relaxation and a good recharge after a long day’s toils. For this working parent, this is a seemingly insurmountable goal , and at the moment more of an occasional, fleeting hurrah than any hint of a permanent sanctuary. Home is proving to be a marathon, an extended work-in-progress that might just be its own end product some day.

Littered with snippets of Singapore’s past that still ring relevant today, Sallamah has also started filling a gaping gap of images of old Singapore in a growing collection. Surely, their place on my shelves will grow, hopefully as quickly as the country’s urban landscape changes.

 

Title: What Sallamah Didn’t Know
by Sharon Ismail, with illustrations by Khairudin Saharom
Publisher: Candid Kids, 2007
Malay, simplified Chinese, and Tamil language editions launched 2015 under the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism.

(I had the pleasure of hearing Sharon Ismail speak at AFCC 2018 about writing for multicultural readers, where she mentioned this book and the myth of blood being thicker than water, which led to the title of this post. This review is based on a reading of the Chinese edition of the book.)

Safely hidden


Book review, from Tokyo – A summer vacation offers, for many, respite from the daily grind of school and the office. The hiatus often brings a selection of scary tales to library shelves, one both refreshingly frightening and inspiring at the same time.

Etsuko Yamamoto’s YA chapter book『神隠しの教室』(Kamikakushi no kyoushitsu, lit. The hidden classroom) tells the story of the sudden disappearance of five children in the middle of a normal school day like a classic who-dunnit.

The missing children come from varying backgrounds – a straight-talking 5th-grade girl born to Brazilian parents; her quiet classmate who somehow fell into the bad books of that cool girl in class; a nerdy-looking, bespectacled 4th-grade boy; a timid, soft-spoken, nervous 1st-grade girl; and a gangly, unkempt 6th-grade boy.

The teachers and school staff scramble to find the lost children. Meanwhile, the kids realize they had somehow entered a parallel world, with no one else in the entire compound, which looked very much identical.

Taking it onto themselves to join hands to find food and shelter in the confines of the school, they find their lunches served as they should at meal time, at their tables in their classrooms. There was also electricity and gas. Besides the fact that no one else was there, the school seemed to function like any other. They start to get used to their one-meal-a-day, care-free lives in this otherwise empty school, that is, until the weekend, when there was no school, and no food served.

In the hokenshitsu, the medical care or nurse’s room found in Japanese elementary schools, Sanae, the school’s nurse, notices something amiss. The bread she routinely puts in her drawer for the gangly 6th grader is gone. Had he somehow taken it without her knowing?

Ruffling through the school’s annals in the Principal’s office, the children find out that Sanae herself was similarly spirited away in 6th grade, in that same school. Uncanny. Perhaps the school was doing this. But why?

Gaining access to a computer in the audio-visual room, the kids manage to contact Sanae through her counseling blog. She rummages her memory to suggest that they open the same door at the same time to connect both worlds. However, their attempt only manages to open a blurry portal, which they could not walk or reach through. Something was lacking.

Sanae realizes that the school might be keeping the children safely away from something. As she gradually unravels the story behind each missing child, the five children grow closer with each passing day.

The children finally ask Sanae to reenact her return by asking their now distraught mothers to help them out of the other world. Only four return to their parent’s relieved embraces. The gangly 6th grader chooses to stay behind, his mother not there, or so it seemed.

Eventually, he too returns unharmed, striding out alone to four newfound friends, and the nurse who now knew and threw light on their stories.

Throughout the book, the children are plunged into varying degrees of self-doubt (why me?), self-blame (I’m the reason they are here with me), disappointment (it’s just not working), frustration (it’s all your fault!), and hopelessness (we’re never going home). But each time, some one would come up with a diversion, an idea, an outlet that offered hope or just a welcome break.

They could have chosen to stay in that hollow parallel world, until the point they realized that their loved ones were waiting on the other side, and also that the old building was slated for demolition.

In a story that was not unlike some bizarre escape game, the children found each other, a peer group, a group of individuals whose presence at school was under threat for some reason – bullying, abuse, neglect. Finding that group inspired the courage and clarity of mind to take the step back into their lives, with deep gratitude to the old school building that had developed a mind of its own.

 

Title: 『神隠しの教室』(Kamikakushi no kyoushitsu, lit. The hidden classroom)
by Etsuko Yamamoto, with illustrations by Yuki Maruyama
Publisher: Doshinsha, 2016
The book won the 2017 Noma Prize for Juvenile Literature.

Struggling with neglect


Film review, from Tokyo – Last things first: After watching Kore-eda’s critically acclaimed 『万引き家族』(Manbiki kazoku, lit. Shoplifters), I remember deep anger, sympathy and then finally hope from its abrupt ending. Shoplifters came through as a story of the many forms of neglect, which allows underlying problems to fester, to take on a life of their own. In this film, it colours the decisions made in the struggle for survival, largely out of convenience with huge dose of humanity and a tinge of exploitation. (Core plot follows.)

Right from the outset, the audience is presented with shoplifting as the appetizer leading up to the main course. It is winter in Tokyo, and a middle-aged man (Osamu Shibata, played by Lily Franky) and a slightly wobbly lady (Nobuyo, Sakura Ando) are making their way home together after a few drinks. A boy (Shota, Jyo Kairi) is slumped over the man’s shoulders half-asleep after a long day. Taking a familiar path home, they spot a little girl (Yuri, Miyu Sasaki) left alone out in the corridor of an apartment, cold and hungry, quivering perhaps also from the screams and shouts within.  They decide to take the trembling child home.

Home is a single storey structure shrouded in foliage, a cramped, messy abode, where two women, one grandiosely old (Hatsue, Kirin Kiki), the other whose future lay just ahead (Aki, Mayu Matsuoka), did not seem especially perturbed by the new arrival.

The story revolves around the familial relationships among these six people: Osamu, an odd-job construction worker; Nobuyo, a laundry shop part-timer; Hatsue, the old lady living on handouts and pension payouts; Aki, who chose her grand mother over a college education overseas; Shota, Osamu’s pilfering sidekick and curious reader; and Yuri, the newcomer, who threw a spanner into the old equilibrium.

The Shibatas live in poverty, pilfering to make ends meet, but they bring Yuri home, take her on a shopp(lift)ing run to get new clothes, swimming costumes, and then to the beach for that picture perfect family outing.

Things go downhill quickly though. Their wafer thin finances are hit first by Osamu’s injury, so when Hatsue leaves Aki in mourning, the next turn proves a carbon copy of gruesome reality – they decide to hide her body to continue receiving her pension payouts. Nobuyo then gets laid off, a deal struck with some compensation.

But when Shota gets caught on a routine run, the Shibata’s house of cards finally unravels, illuminated under the spotlight, crumpling under the long arm of law.

All through the movie, I saw the Shibata’s struggles with money, their humanity inciting sympathy and solidarity. I smiled at their familial joys, but winced occasionally at their choices for survival. And so I comprehended my blase at the superficial media coverage of the unplanned abduction and the initial anger against the officials who effused pity along with disdain. Bringing Osamu and Nobuyo under the law proved their errors, but it felt cruel to label those struggles as simply a result of being grossly misled.

A story rooted in an elder getting by alone, her misguided granddaughter, two wayward part-timing adults struggling for a livelihood, and two neglected children who found temporary shelter. Perhaps it all hinged on the boy who read, for him to find the courage to trust the world and its myriad systems. If others had reached out to them, if they knew what was out there for them, perhaps the story would have been very different.

It all began with the Shibatas bringing little Yuri into their home, and it all ended with her finding something offscreen. Although that felt rather abrupt, it is a fitting ending, because that’s probably the start of another story altogether.

 

Shoplifters (2018)
Original title in Japanese:『万引き家族』(Manbiki kazoku)
Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
More on the film at IMDb

Looking to the stars


Book review, from Tokyo – Japan’s drizzly season bridging spring and summer officially ended in Tokyo in June for the first time, with one day to spare. With libraries having renewed their selections ahead of time, I found a slightly different tale of Tanabata (七夕), celebrated on 7 July in Japan, but based on the same date in the lunar calendar in Chinese tradition. Retold by Touru Tsunemitsu through Takaaki Nomura’s signature woodblock-print illustrations, 『たなばたにょうぼう』(Tanabata nyoubou, lit. The tanabata wife) tells a lesser-known version of the tale, rooted in a fox’s advice, given twice, to a peasant.

The first time was after he spared the fox’s life when he found it hiding in a barn. Go down to the river, it said. The peasant was skeptical, but did as he was told. Hanging on a branch by the river was a beautiful, delicate piece of cloth. Puzzled but pleased by his find, he brings this home.

Later that day, a girl named Tanabata comes round asking for her celestial dress, but he denies any knowledge of this. Living together, they eventually marry, and Tanabata gives birth to a boy.

One day, the boy finds a strange-looking box in the cupboard and shows it to his mother. Having found her celestial dress, she could stay no longer, taking her child with her to heaven.

The fox then returns to the despairing father with advice. Build some wings and I will send you to heaven, it said, and it barked as loud as it could to send the man with wings soaring through the sky.

Reunited in heaven, all is well until the Heavenly Mother sets repeated trials for the man to pass in order to stay on. The first test is to lug a huge rock back from the mountains. The second is to scatter three bushels of seeds, only to instruct him to gather every single one the next day. The third is to tend the melon patch.

For each test, Tanabata gave her husband sound advice: the rock is made of paper so bring it back as if it were heavy, bury the bushels intact and retrieve them the next day, and never eat even a single melon no matter what happens. The dutiful husband passed the first two trials comfortably, but Tanabata was worried about the third – the man would have to fight the desire to quench his thirst under the hot sun.

Inevitably, he takes one. It pops open, starting a chain reaction of all the other melons in the patch. As the man is washed away by the flood, Tanabata shouts repeatedly over the gushing waters to meet on the seventh day of the month, but the man hears this as the seventh day of the seventh month. The flood creates the Milky Way, and the couple would only meet once a year, as we know today, on the seventh day of the seventh month.

Tsunemitsu’s retelling offers a slightly different version of a familiar tale, where I see the tricky fox as the chief architect and the man falling to his opportunistic nature in the end despite his wife’s repeated advice.

Ahead of Tanabata, I often see wishes written on colourful strips of paper tied to bamboo branches. These have always remained somewhat unfamiliar, but now I know from Tsunemitsu’s afterword that the tradition was started by terakoya (temple schools) during the Edo period to encourage the pursuit of scholarly desires and ambitions.

 

Title: 『たなばたにょうぼう』(Tanabata nyoubou, lit. The tanabata wife)
Retold by Touru Tsunemitsu, illustrated by Takaaki Nomura
Publisher: Doshinsha, 2017

The first bite


Book review, from Tokyo – Bringing up my children in Japan, I learned about kuizome, which literally means the first bite. Usually held around the 100-day mark, when babies start to drool over everything before actually teething, a celebration is held to give the child the first bite of solid food. More of a symbolic gesture than a real bite, this ritual seems to have been adopted also by the oni, or ogres, as depicted in 『鬼の首引き』(Oni no kubihiki, lit. Ogre’s neck tug-of-war) by Norie Iwaki.

The story begins with a young man starting out for the capital in search of work. As he enters the woods, dark clouds gather, and the wind picks up. And lo and behold, an ogre appears out of nowhere. Caught and about to become lunch, the young man asks to be devoured by a princess. It happens that this ogre has a young daughter, who has yet to have her kuizome, or her first bite of a human. Delighted at this offer, the ogre tells his daughter, the demon princess, to get her first bite on her own.

The princess comes near gingerly. After all, it is her first bite of a human. “How shall I eat him? Shall I start from the hand? The leg? Or from the top of the head?” she sings. As she approaches from behind, the young man bats her head with his fan, as if swatting a bug. When she finds the courage to return for his leg, he coughs so loud that she flees, petrified.

Now ogres are a principled kind, and proud of that they are. Both times, the young man gave scarcely believable explanations, and both times the ogre gave him the benefit of doubt. Seeing that the ogre was a critter of its word, the young man takes the opportunity to ask to be eaten only if he loses a contest of strength with who else but his eater. And so he and the tiny princess lock arms, and then legs, to wrestle. Of course, he wins easily both times.

Seeing his beloved princess bawling and her pride hurt, the angry father calls on all his brethren to put the young man up to a real contest –  a neck tug-of-war. They loop ropes around their necks and start tugging away. The young man holds on as well as he can, but even he is no match for a whole tribe of ogres. As his feet slip and slide, he hangs on until the very last moment before removing the rope suddenly to send the ogres tumbling, which leaves him with time to escape.

In the story, time and again, the young man came up with something outrageous to outwit the ogres. Time and again, the ogre’s fatherly disposition and respectful demeanor sat awkwardly well, until the neck tug-of-war and the final escape. These comedic elements come from the story’s roots in kyougen, a form of Japanese traditional theater, as Iwaki describes in the book’s backmatter. He also reminds readers that the sport neck tug-of-war can be found in the choujuugiga picture scroll, famously considered by some as the world’s oldest work of manga.

On the final page of the book, Yousuke Inoue offers a warm father-daughter portrait of the ogre father standing firm with a smile on its face while his daughter is sat on one arm. That grin shines with a father’s pride. Who knows what lessons they learned, but my hunch is that she got that first bite, with some help from a fine demon of a dad.

Title: 『鬼の首引き』(Oni no kubihiki, lit. Ogre’s neck tug-of-war)
Story by Norie Iwaki, illustrations by Yousuke Inoue
Publisher: Fukuinkan Shoten, 2006

Somewhere in between


Book review, from Tokyo – This post on Miku Ito’s  『カーネーション』(Kaaneeshon, lit. Carnation) is timed between May 5th, Children’s Day in Japan, and Mother’s Day. This tale is nothing like the normal present for that day, but a troubling story of a failing relationship between a mother and her child in the Touno family – Aiko, mother; Hiyori, middle-grade daughter; Kouko, kindergarten daughter; and Shinya, father and sole breadwinner who is that familiar Japanese male wage worker. Told in a series of monologues by Hiyori and Aiko, Aiko effuses love and attention for Kouko, but doesn’t seem to be able to treat Hiyori the same way.

The opening prepares the reader well. Hiyori gets a question at cram school from Tougo, a middle-grade boy, probing about whether she disliked anyone in particular. She mirrors the question, deflecting away the thorny issue. Tougo lives in with Kazu, or Kazuki, the sole tutor at a tiny cram school. Not that Hiyori really dislikes anyone, but she struggles to constantly fight for her mother’s love, to just make her smile. She finds respite and a welcoming smile from her aunt Yuzuki’s nearby shop and finds the space to return home as normal to a bawling baby sister and the protective, loving mum.

On the other hand, Aiko cannot bring herself to understand why she expresses her love for Hiyori the way she does. Perhaps because her daughter’s eyes remind her of her younger sister, who died an unfortunate death. Perhaps she was to blame those many years ago. Hiding this past from her daughter, she soldiers on, as mothers do, trying valiantly to understand her, hoping that she will one day open up to her.

With the ties pulled taut, things come to a head when Hiyori prepares a surprise birthday present for her mother, only for her plans to be foiled by that troublesome, inquisitive younger sibling. Hiyori bursts out of the house and takes refuge in the cram school. Aiko ends up needing depressants in hospital after losing her footing in her frantic search for her daughter.

All this while, Shinya had closed his eyes to the tension at home, choosing to gaze at those twinkling shows of light within them. Wife in hospital, daughter fled from home, younger daughter in the care of sister-in-law, he finally faces up to reality, to open up to change things, to save his family, which he succeeds with the help of Kazu, his old friend at the cram school, and Yuzuki. That change, of course, began from within.

Published on Mother’s day last year, Ito’s novel gives her YA readers a peek into the minds of parents in a not-entirely-improbable family situation and the sanctuaries to be found in friends and relatives. For the inquisitive reader-parent in me, it wrings those parental heartstrings – the mother struggling to fulfill her motherly duties, albeit in largely different ways for both daughters; the father finally opening up to his part as a parent in the family, with Shinya coming into the alternating monologues toward the end.

As a father, husband, brother and son, I see myself somewhere in between the two female protagonists in the story, which contains a message to fathers, and fathers-to-be, as part of a family. 『カーネーション』attempts to throw light on those oh-so-normal boundaries of gender (Tougo cooks well!) and parenting responsibilities. Painting a portrait of a family in transition, the ending also suggests change in Japanese society where men realize the need to do their part in sharing the family burden as more women divide their energies between work and facing the lifelong pressures of motherhood.

With an off-white cover adorned by carnations in four different colours, this different story serves up a reminder of the toils of a mother, and adds to that a failing mother-daughter relationship. A troubling tale that closes on a reassuring note with light shining through at the end for the daughter and her family.

Title: 『カーネーション』(Kaaneeshon, lit. Carnation)
Text by Miku Ito, pictures by Komako Sakai
Publisher: KUMON Publishing, 2017