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

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.