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

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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

Your friendly local bookstore


Book review, from Tokyo – Known for his short, whimsically philosophical picture books that normally feature children, Shinsuke Yoshitake’s 『あるかしら書店』(Arukashira Shoten, loosely translated as “Chance bookstore”) (POPLAR Publishing, 2017) serves up a hefty 103-page chapter comic on that friendly local bookstore where you can take your chances on finding something different.

A balding moustachioed man wrapped in standard apron attire goes about tidying the shelves, entering data into his laptop, lining up new stock, or munching through a snack, a routine broken by the odd customer who pops in to ask “Would you happen to have a book on such-and-such a topic, by any chance?”

Each customer comes in with a slightly unusual request, from books on book events, books on booklover traits, books on book-related work, books on famous places related to books, books about books, to one that the customer recalls the story but not the title. The bookseller works his magic, diving into his memory and through the store to pick out several that fit those descriptions. In the ensuing booktalk, he introduces his selection.

Some of the stories are quite hilarious, my favourites being: A bookshelf curator who goes around convincing people to part with their impeccably-arranged selections, along with the bookshelves; the fate of end-of-life books from dissection to reuse of their tangible parts and intangible essences for future creations; bookstore weddings for book lovers, from re-enacting that unforgettable reaching-for-that-same-book moment to the customary book toss; people who simply like stating for a fact that they love books, love the smell of books, stacking books, reading books, chewing on bookmark straps, among the myriad of book lover types; and a fiendishly clever book detective who apprehends errant book lovers by reading their minds after a quick forensic glance of their bookshelves.

The customer leaves with a smile, cuddling another prized find retrieved by the friendly, knowledgeable bookseller. I should just try walking into any old bookstore and ask for some sort of book, and wait in anticipation for what I might get introduced to (or not). The chance to just hear what stories the bookseller has to share is something online retailers will find hard to match, and perhaps one big factor behind the reported increases in sales at independent bookstores in the US.

The book left me deeply satisfied, that the need for those conversations between booksellers, librarians and readers, and the wondrous places, characters and stories we encounter in the worlds portrayed in books, remained intact. Besides being fun to just flip through and reread anytime, as we devote more and more time to our digital devices, the stories in this little bookstore are a timely reminder of how much we stand to gain from reading and sharing stories with others, which we can never hope to make up for with any number of clicks in between.

 

Title: 『あるかしら書店』 (Arukashira Shoten, loosely translated as “Chance bookstore”, arukashira is a phrase used to ask “(Would you) happen to have”)
Author: Shinsuke Yoshitake
Publisher: POPLAR Publishing, 2017

『あるかしら書店』 is a commemorative publication to mark the 70th anniversary of POPLAR Publishing, and a compilation that blends new artwork with that created for other publications.

If that building were to speak


Picture book review, from Tokyo – When we speak of Hiroshima today, a site that has become a part of human history  stands apart from the city’s food, its produce, and culture. The UNESCO Heritage Hiroshima Peace Memorial, covers what is today known as the A-bomb dome. Standing on the bank of the river for more than a century, its presence alone tells a story.

Hiroshima resident and poet Arthur Binard gives it a voice in 『ドームがたり』 (Doumu gatari, lit. Dome story / Dome speaks) (Tamagawa University Press, 2017), illustrated by Koji Suzuki.

Affectionately known as just “Dome” by Hiroshima people, Dome starts off by greeting the reader, thanking us for dropping by to visit. Like a seasoned speaker, it points out the slight inaccuracy of the name of the nearby tram station, before introducing itself. Fathered by Czech designer Jan Letzel, it was built in 1915 to showcase Hiroshima goods and produce. It had a few other names before “Dome”, whether it was goods or industry, there was always a part of it that was “Hiroshima”. That was until Japan went on the road to militarization, war broke out, and people came to talk about doing things “for the country”.

Dome recalls, as a cicada flew by in the height of summer 1945, an American plane dropped something that cracked open overhead in a blinding flash. The cicada and “Hiroshima” were destroyed that day, Dome says, and since then many things have become very clear through its airy skeleton head.

It sees the world as a makeup of particles. Radioactive particles, it explains, are like teeny tiny shards of glass. Glass hurts, but these particles are so tiny that we cannot feel them, even as they keep buzzing and zapping. Dome also reminds us of the Makurazaki typhoon that struck a month later, washing much of the radioactive particles into the ocean, sending them buzzing across the seas. Further afar, it sees the many particle islands and mountains formed in the course of tests all over the world, and discharge from contraptions humans built to harness the power of this relentless zapping.

How long do these particles continue to buzz and zap? Dome wonders, but hopes that the birds and other friends who visit don’t get hurt by some particle lingering in some dark corner of its bare frame.

After Dome tells its story, Binard provides an epilogue to explain the relationship between Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239, which were respectively used in the warheads of the two bombs that fell on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki three days later. He also reminds us of the significance of the plague engraved with “e=mc2”, which is a result of US censorship of the nuclear bomb, and the world order dominated by the nuclear powers ever since.

Nearly 7 years since the tsunami hit Fukushima Daiichi, I found this picture book drawing clear links rooted in nuclear power, something that some have tried and failed to harness. Today other nations are conducting nuclear tests for energy sources and consumption underpin industry, trade, affluence and economic growth. This trend of thought seems set to continue in the near future, at least, as calls for a return of morality in economics grow. Therein lies the need to share Dome’s story and Binard’s commentary for future generations.

 

Title: 『ドームがたり』
(Doumu gatari, lit. Dome story / Dome speaks)
Text by Arthur Binard, illustrated by Koji Suzuki
Publisher: Tamagawa University Press, 2017

Engaging fact-based fiction close to home


Comic/Graphic novel review, from Tokyo, about Singapore – Sonny Liew’s “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” (Epigram Books, 2015; Pantheon Books, 2016) created a stir with news of a S$8,000 grant being withdrawn on the day before the book’s Singapore launch in May 2015. Despite some reviews online suggesting some reasons, it was still quite a shocking turn of events.

Having earmarked it since then, I finally got my hands on a copy directly from the local publisher online almost two years on.

Sparingly bonded, each time I reread it, I flip each page with utmost care, each turn creaking on the spine, threatening to pull the book apart. The stories inked into the pages though come through vibrantly.

Charlie Chan is a comics artist who lived through the post-war history of this island nation, which was famously propelled from third world to first in half a century, maybe less. In the course of that time, the world saw the rise of Lee Kwan Yew, known widely as the nation’s founding father, and left behind some other people and forces that inevitably helped shape the path of its young history.

The author blends his visibly apparent illustrations among Charlie’s and other historical snippets, positioning Charlie and the facts closer to the past, while assuming a modern day tone himself to explain things to present day readers. Charlie’s repertoire across several comic genres in a single book is also refreshingly entertaining.

Well, this multi-layering is all the master storyteller’s work, a work of fact-based fiction that clinched six nominations and won three Eisner awards. Coupled with the withdrawn grant, the attention drew more reviews on the story and artwork, yet I felt many missed the bit that I enjoyed most – reading a work that touched very close to home.

I particularly liked how Malaysia or Malaya played a part almost throughout the book’s narrative, especially Sang Kancil, the clever mouse deer. That is simply due to cultural, geography and political ties – Singapore is just across the 1-km Causeway, and became independent in 1965 just two years after merging to form Malaysia. It is even more natural considering the fact that the author himself was born in Malaysia, and moved across the straits at 5.

As a child, I remember classmates who commuted daily across the Causeway. They were always at school before me, and would sometimes talk among themselves about who came in earliest that day. They had a much better command of the Chinese language than I did then, and probably do still.

This somehow ties in with the way Charlie attempts to highlight, at numerous points, the fluctuating fortunes of the Chinese-educated population, tying in historical movements and incidents like the student riots and the Communist threat. Having studied at a Chinese school left me wondering why that part of history, learned mostly by ear, was scarcely mentioned in class. Perhaps I simply wasn’t paying enough attention, perhaps blinded by all that glitter in the race for survival through affluence. (Rereading that last sentence revealed the many fallacies of my juvenile thoughts.)

Littered with factual episodes to present different takes on history, including an alternative reality where the late Lim Chin Siong becomes Singapore’s Prime Minister, this 320-page graphic novel weaves fact with fiction to create a series of engaging fact-based anecdotes.

Having etched its place in Singapore’s art history at a time when the nation is gradually opening up to artistic pursuit, the book will undoubtedly also have sown the seeds for a deeper look into the nation’s, and the region’s, historical narrative.

It has certainly reminded me of the possibilities fiction offers in shining a light on the many untold stories lying under the surface of historical fact.

 

Title: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye
Author: Sonny Liew
Publisher: Epigram Books, 2015Pantheon Books, 2016
(available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook)

Winner of 2017 Eisner Awards for Best Writer/Artist, Best US Edition of International Material—Asia, and Best Publication Design

Other accolades listed on publisher websites.

Just different


Book review, from Tokyo – Four teens popped into the train the other day. One of them was visibly larger than the other three, and a tad bit more tanned. He seemed relaxed, laid back, as did the rest. The train crowd that day was just enough for everyone to see whatever happened across the length of the carriage.

The next moment began an episode I would not forget in a hurry. One of the boys starts picking on this bigger boy, making snide comments on his size, his stubby nose, the tiny curls in his hair, his brownish-blue eyes, anything that seemed obviously different.

Hums and haws deflected each attack, as his large frame sank deeper into the cushion. One of the other boys interrupts to ask the interrogator about his family, offering his friend a brief respite. The bigger boy musters a  response, asking some questions of his own. The exchange continues, mostly one-sided, with the obtrusive teen probing deeper.

Perhaps there wasn’t any ill intent, but it was still a disturbing exchange that happened right in front of everyone else.

This episode brought to mind the OECD PISA 2015 report on bullying released earlier this year, where 15-year-olds provided, for the first time, self-reports on their experience of frequent bullying. Compared to other forms of bullying, Japanese teens saw more verbal bullying but less overall than the OECD average. However, PISA acknowledges that cultural differences could have affected responses. Incidentally, the suicide rate among Japanese school children peaks when school resumes in September after about 6 weeks of summer vacation.

Fortunately, Jason Parker, the brave, level-headed sixth grader in Holly Thompson’s verse novel “Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth” (Henry Holt and Company, 2016), never contemplates suicide, but he does come within a whisker of joining them.

Jason’s story starts with him being thrown into a group notorious for bullying. He would have to navigate various tasks together with them for almost two months, until the next seat change. His friends advise him to keep a low profile, to never react, lest it got worse. The teacher is indifferent, even apathetic. Everyone just goes about minding their own business, keeping a safe distance.

Respite comes from his little sister, whether it is the mess in their shared room, their adventures storming through the streets, meeting new people in the neighbourhood, and ultimately when she saves him. He also finds some joy outside school and peace at Aikido class, where he trains his mind and body to be ready for his enemies, or so he thinks.

Two crimes are woven into the plot – a fire and a lost paperweight. The former was arson, a primer for the latter case that had a greater bearing on the story. For the class, it was theft. For Jason, it was betrayal and the worst possible scenario averted by his little sister.

The verse format forces the reader to stay close to Jason, as we follow him through a harrowing period of his life in a coastal town.

We join him in keeping alert for attacks at school, which leaves one exhausted but still looking to avoid contact in town. We are grateful for the pockets of refuge in Aikido and other parts of the town, the space to reach out to Jason’s interests elsewhere. We are blind-sided by his wayward focus, losing sight of obvious danger, before finally finding closure and a way forward with Aikido.

Jason’s story made me step back to reflect on my reactions toward differences, on the importance of learning to accept differences as they are, as a chance to connect, not abuse. It opened the door to delving deeper, to view outward aggression as a suggestion of other problems, to recall how difficult it is to handle peer pressure, and to look out for tell-tale signs of abuse and reach out, because it could make a whole world of difference for someone.

Title: Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth
Author: Holly Thompson
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, 2016 (available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook)