Cake trees to tide over


Book review, from Tokyo – Autumn seems to have come early. The scorching mid 30 degrees Celcius heat has vanished miraculously, and I find myself in a lower 20s drizzly mist. Well, one could take solace in that the Obon holidays again welcomed the peak of summer in August, a period that coincides with the yearly ceremony to mark the date of end of World War II in Japan, which was again broadcast on TV, but this year during the Tokyo Olympics.

“The 15th of August, 1945” – this date starts each story in Akiyuki Nosaka’s The Cake Tree in the Ruins (Pushkin Press 2018, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori). Nosaka lived through the firebombing of Kobe and survived his family. An award-winning writer whose works which include The Grave of the Fireflies, which inspired the Studio Ghibli movie, Cake Tree is a collection of twelve short stories of his memories from his childhood. Its content is apparent in the original Japanese title 『戦争童話集』(Sensou-douwa shuu; Chuokoron-Shinsha, 2003, original edition 1980), literally “wartime children’s stories”.

What did Nosaka want his stories to convey? Well, they are certainly not your usual reading fare.

An oversized lovelorn whale who gets blown into bits by depth charges to protect his beloved, a similarly-sized submarine; a boy who loses his mother and his speech in shock and has to relearn it from his pet parrot; a mother who turns into a kite after applying her milk to soothe her son’s skin as they are engulfed in flames; an old she-wolf who finds the energy to protect a diseased Japanese girl abandoned by her fleeing brethren in China; a kamikaze pilot who takes a pet cockroach out on his last mission and leaves it with rations in his archaic plane’s cockpit on a barren beach; a POW who befriends a girl orphaned by firebombing, takes cover in a forgotten air-raid shelter, and runs off alone into the mountains, fearful of being discovered by civilians bringing news of the end of the war; the story of the cake tree in the ruins that grew from crumbs of Western cakes baked in wartime Japan, a tree that only children knew but the grown-ups never noticed; a keeper who escapes with the zoo’s elephant into the mountains, wandering back to a town burnt to the ground in their search for a new hiding place; a soldier who succumbs to starvation on a southern island but finds his way back to Japan and his mother through stories and folktales; a boy who finally comes to terms with his father’s death when his home bunker is finally filled; the children who deflate themselves to fill one last leather hydrogen balloon weapon and release it into the August sky; and the soldier who loved horses, followed one to the mountains after the barrack’s stable was bombed open, and decided to “quickly follow it in death” to keep its trust.

One line for each story is not enough to illustrate the emotions and thoughts that were aroused. With the exception of the POW’s humorous story, many of them end in death, whether by starvation, assault, flames, disease, or harakiri. However, I did not feel overly miserable nor distressed but instead felt enlightened to the many methods and falsehoods of propaganda and the absurd weapons devised as Imperial Japan reached the end of its tether. I also encountered a fact that I had trouble understanding when I first learned about it from my Japanese relatives – rice rationing continued until as recently as 1982, more than three decades after the war had ended. But more so, I read stories of what people had to do to survive (or die trying) and was pulled through the volume by the solace from the undercurrents of compassion and the humane, regardless of them being between humans or not, in the pages.

The title of this collection comes from the seventh in the volume, perhaps indicating a continuation of the first seven published as The Whale That Fell in Love with a Submarine (Pushkin Children’s Books, 2015). Perhaps the cake tree was a deliberate reference to Kobe, Nosaka’s hometown and a city famous for its Western confections, particularly the Baumkuchen, literally “tree cake” in German. Or perhaps the title alludes to creations like the cake tree with its sweet aroma of care and affection that help us tide over the most difficult of times.

Title: The Cake Tree in the Ruins by Akiyuki Nosaka, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2018

Picture poetry


Book review, from Tokyo – What do you get when you bring an illustrator a poem? You might just get a picture book. Apparently, that’s what happened with 『オサム』 (Osamu, a somewhat common name for a Japanese boy or man). On the cover is a gorilla holding a bunch of flowers to its nose, a little bumblebee buzzing near its brow. The French flap offers a hint – “When I tried to draw a good person, I ended up with a gorilla!” Those words belong to Hiroshi Abe, who drew the illustrations to Shuntaro Tanikawa’s words.

Curious, I turned the page.

It begins with a statement that is at once simple and profound.

ほかの生きものと ともにオサムは生きている

(Hoka no ikimono to tomo ni, Osamu ha ikite iru; lit. Osamu lives together with/among other living things.)

The book flips page after page into Osamu’s interactions with the other living things around him – children, other gorillas, neighbours, nature – and his temperament – quiet, gentle, kind, fun. He spends his birthday lying quietly on a shady grassy patch, looking somewhat happily to an owl and a chameleon perched on an overhanging branch. Osamu writes a letter to a teacher who taught him many years ago and bears a contented smile as he stands on all fours eyes closed among a bed of flowers of an ancestor’s grave – Osamu is grateful and respectful of those before him.

The book closes with

オサムは今日も つつましく生きている

(Osamu ha kyou mo tsutsumashiku ikite iru; lit. Osamu lives today (and everyday) humbly.)

Like many picture books, the beauty lies in the collaboration between pictures and words. Abe manages to express what is not in Tanikawa’s words, the interpretation often simple and beautiful. For instance, when Osamu visits an ancestor’s grave, we only see a bed of flowers, and Osamu’s quiet nature is expressed by him looking inquisitively at a bumblebee. There is no extravagant fanfare over a birthday nor tussles for supremacy. Even in action, Osamu imbued a sense of quiet and being at peace with all things around him, a good being enjoying a simple, humble life.

Like many a good book, another twist waited at the end.

There, I found a pleasant surprise – another poem by Shuntaro Tanikawa! In『ぼくのゆめ』(Boku no yume, lit. My dream; boku is normally used by boys but some girls today use it too), a grown-up asks “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The child replies “My dream is to become a good person.” When the grown-up pulls a frown and chides the child for not having a bigger dream, the child’s reaction is,

“I don’t need to be great

I don’t need to be rich

My dream is to be a good person

That’s what I think to myself without saying it out loud”

Trying to put the idea of ii hito or good person into words, Tanikawa wrote Osamu, the poem by the name of the good person he envisioned. And Hiroshi Abe drew inspiration from the quiet, gentle gorilla in Asahiyama Zoo, Hokkaido.

A book that reads from front to back and back again, these two well-loved children’s book creators bring us another precious book, this time a poetic one on enjoying the simple life as a good being.

Title: 『オサム』 (Osamu) text by Shuntaro Tanikawa, illustrated by Hiroshi Abe
Publisher: Dowa-ya Co., Ltd., 2021

Resilience from helpful neighbours


Book review, from Tokyo – After spying a review in a column by Ayako Oguni in the Mainichi Shimbun (morning edition, 2 March 2021), I simply had to pick up this particular picture book. Kyoko Ube’s 『リアスのうみべ さんてつがゆく』 (Riasu no umibe santetsu ga yuku; lit., the Ria coast where the Santetsu runs) tells the inspiring heart-felt story of the Sanriku Railway after the March 2011 tsunami.

Affectionately known as Santetsu, of which san comes from the name of the region and tetsu an abbreviation of tetsudo or railway, the service running along the 160km Rias Line famously ploughed on despite extensive damage to its tracks and bridges. It is no wonder that the train line has become a symbol of reconstruction. But this book offers more than just that story.

From the title page, Yukiko Saito’s illustrations threw me straight into a dark and dank room lit only by a sole candle. An old lady huddles together with two children in a blanket while a man next to them sits hunched against the wall. His head hangs dejectedly, a black rucksack stands nearby. Their backs are to the window, so I can see rooftops washing away outside. Some power poles too. This is a now familiar image I could piece together from first-hand accounts.

The next few pages surprised me, like the people who hear the train coming through the light snow. It can’t be! There is so much damage, but people work day and night to put the railway back into service. And by the fifth day, the train pulls into the station, bringing people equipped, determined, and ready to help clean up the rubble. Many survivors become ill from their prolonged stays in the evacuation shelters, but a ride together on the familiar santetsu brings tears of joy and smiles. When an old lady apologizes for not being able to paying her fare, the train conductor grips her hands appreciatively, saying “We’re in it together. Ganbaru beshi!”

As the train chugs on, over the years, the landscape outside changes from construction site brown to a grassy green covering what was once a town. Strolling the plain, those legs would recall a fish shop here, the tofu store next to it, and the barber across the street. As the sea breeze passing through the pine forest brings back kinder, fun memories, a distant train whistle reminds us that we are not alone.

Written in simple Tohoku dialect, the book portrays the resilience of the region driven and made possible by the railway. Besides the dialect, illustrator Saito also hails from Tohoku, which makes it a full cast from subject matter to perspective. My particular takeaway is how resilience comes from standing in solidarity and reaching out to help your neighbours. No one is or should be left alone. As a Chinese saying goes, a faraway relative cannot stop a nearby fire. The nearby community must be the first port of call. So, this book is truly a tribute to the santetsu. A railway that connects and stays close to its people. Its rhythmic rumbling, the heartbeat of the Sanriku coast.

Title: 『リアスのうみべ さんてつがゆく』 (Riasu no umibe santetsu ga yuku; lit., the Ria coast where the Santetsu runs) text by Kyoko Ube, illustrated by Yukiko Saito
Publisher: Iwasaki Shoten, 2021

An unexpected read


Book review, from Tokyo – I never thought I would find it sitting in that bookstore. “Are there any English books?” I ventured politely at the cashier counter. The kind lady guided me to the English study corner of the store. Well, there was half a shelf, and this was one of the largest stores in greater Tokyo albeit targeted at a domestic crowd. Anyway, I already expected the selection because I had searched their online catalogue. But what I didn’t expect was for the eiken (practical English language proficiency test) section to come with a tiny little shelf of learning aids, where there stood inconspicuously not one but two copies of And Tango Makes Three alongside Hello Kitty early reader book and educational toys. I had heard about this book, once-banned in Singapore, and had read it before. This Classic Board Book edition just screamed out – get me! – so I did, thinking “Anyway, there’s another copy for someone else!”

My elder daughter, now in middle school, has gotten more interested in English, although whether for grades or just the language remains unclear. She might pick Tango off the shelf someday, but my younger one’s preference for foreign language learning veers towards K-pop. That is, if she ever ventures there as often as she does the tablet, her toys, or her sewing kit. She often asked to be read at bedtime. So when I got the chance, I dangled a penguin story along with a running translation in Japanese. And she bit.

For anyone who hasn’t already read, Tango is based on a true story about two male penguins fathering a chick in New York City’s Central Park Zoo. Tango starts by bringing readers to New York City, then Central Park, and then its zoo, where human families come to meet the animal kind. And of course, there must be penguins because they’re on the cover! So the story starts when two male penguins Roy and Silo find each other during mating season. They waddle, swim, eat, and sing together. They do everything together. But when other couples start hatching eggs in their nests, Roy and Silo could only bring home an egg-like rock to warm. That is, until one day, when Mr. Gramzay, their keeper, snuck a spare egg into their nest. The two penguins cared for it and it was only time when Tango cracked it open. The book ends with children cheering on a fledgling Tango gliding through the waters with her two fathers before sunset in the penguin house suggest that its time for human and animals alike to go to bed.

Reading that to her didn’t lull her to sleep but drew loads of unexpected laughter. She giggled at how the two penguins seemed to do everything together, particularly bowing as she would. She laughed at how they imitated the other couples by bringing home a rock, and how they tried to hatch it – Of course, it wouldn’t hatch! It’s a rock! Obviously, she was having loads of fun. And right at the end, she burst out again, “two fathers” she exclaimed, to which I added two mothers is also fine. And I think I caught a paused smile in the dim light before she repeated herself again, her mind probably more energized than sleepy after all that. I suggested another read, which she took off me to race through before finally drifting off to dreamland.

Something felt warm and fuzzy inside as I saw my seven-year-old’s openness and honest reactions to this penguin story, regardless of how the birds actually turned out. Reading together certainly opened my eyes to something more than just penguins not normally being able to care for more than one egg. Maybe one day, she will pick it up and perceive it differently on own her own, in the same way as her elder sister, now attuned to the SDGs, did when she reread that Japanese picture book on Mujica’s speech.

(Review based on Little Simon Classic Board Books edition.)

Title: And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole
Publisher: Simon and Schuster, 2005 (hardcover); Little Simon, 2015 (board book)
Also available as ebook and audiobook.

Just two minutes


Book review, from Tokyo – Ever wonder just how long is two minutes? 120 seconds. 1/30 of an hour. 1/720 of a day. Not very long is it?

My daughter picked up 『二分間の冒険』(Jun Okada, 1985; Nifun kan no bouken, lit. A two-minute adventure) from her school library, and it took us almost two months to finish. Well, there was the two-week return deadline and the new sanitization process, which prevented her from renewing it again immediately. So when she finally got her hands on it, we got to the end of this modern classic that is still popular with children (and has remained in print).

No wonder.

Imagine meeting a talking black cat, being invited to spare two-minutes for a game and warped into a fantasy world for it. That’s what happened to Satoru, a 6th grader who used his wits to escape the chore of preparing for a movie screening in the school’s multipurpose hall.

Drawn into a game on hide-and-seek with the cat that called itself dare ka (somebody), Satoru has to find the one sure thing in order to return to the real world. So here he was forced to call upon his wits to save himself.

Somebody didn’t mention a dragon. So when Satoru stumbled onto a strange village of children and unwittingly agreed to be dragon feed, he was paired with Kaori on what seemed a doomed journey north to the dragon manor. Smart and kind, not unlike a girl of the same name he knew from the other world, Kaori guides them faithfully to their destiny.

What did all this have to do with finding the one sure thing? He didn’t know, but he didn’t know how else he could proceed. So he went along and met the fearsome riddle-loving magic dragon. Satoru arrives at the answer, eventually. But not after finding a whole lot of other things. Fear. Courage. Affection. Solidarity. Friends. Victory. Joy. Sadness. All that in two magical, excruciating minutes.

More than 30 years on, this two-minute adventure has found another fan. And I’m quite sure it will mesmerize many more even if they didn’t like talking cats, old manors, magic dragons and perplexing riddles.

Title: 『二分間の冒険』 (Nifunkan no bouken, lit. A two-minute adventure)
by Jun Okada, illustrated by Daihachi Ota
Publisher: Kaisei-sha, Ltd., 1985

A dictionary for the imagination


Book review, from Tokyo – On a rare trip out to the city, I picked up a book. On the cover, a girl in yellow boots stands in shifting rain clouds, gazing up to the thin white streaks above as birds soar past. 『風のことば 空のことば 語りかける辞典』(Kaze no kotoba sora no kotoba – katarikakeru jiten; lit. Wind words, sky words – a read-out-loud dictionary), the title suggests – Can you hear what they are saying?

Published slightly over five years after his passing, this volume is a compilation of Hiroshi Osada’s comments on the children’s poems he picked for publication in the Yomiuri Shimbun between 2004 and 2015. Verses of sensitive and acute observations of nature, things, and the human sentiment are coupled with Hideko Ise’s signature illustrations to create a truly timeless collection.

Structured like a Japanese dictionary of the simplest things from asa (morning), ame (rain), itami (pain), oishii (delicious), kaze (wind), karada (body), pensiru (pencil), to a final entry for wa, wasuremono (something forgotten), each term has multiple verses addressing different aspects, not defining but expanding the term. Just like a handy dictionary to grow our imagination and our sensitivities.

For example, Pencil – Not a tool for people to write words, but a tool to bring people to words. To the pencil, the paper says, “Write me, write me”, and when you write, the words say, “read me, read me”.

It then extends seamlessly to writing – When you write with a brush, you will come to realize that writing means steadying your breath and channeling all your senses.

I certainly enjoyed being reminded of the most delicious taste as a child – a quick bite of a special dish before it is served. And that the two main ingredients of a tasty dish is someone to make it so and then someone to eat it so (delicious). Also, that a simple kind word lasts longer than any medication or treatment (pain). How walking in puddles after the rain is just like walking in the clouds (rain). How the wind gives the grass and trees their voices, and how the power lines howl in defiance on a windy day (wind). How you never misplace unimportant items but only those that are important, and how you’ll never forget the day you forgot something at school and went back for it when no one else was there (something forgotten).

And of course, the editors kindly remind us to read out loud to share this volume with those close by.

Title: 『風のことば 空のことば 語りかける辞典』(Kaze no kotoba sora no kotoba – katarikakeru jiten; lit. Wind words, sky words – a read-out-loud dictionary) by Hiroshi Osada, illustrated by Hideko Ise
Publisher: Kodansha Ltd., 2020

Such a simple story


Book review from Tokyo – If ever we needed a simple children’s story about colours, Arree Chung’s Mixed (Henry Holt, 2018; Macmillan Children’s Books, 2018) probably fits the bill.

This brilliantly simple picture book for 3-5 year-olds begins with three colours – red, yellow, and blue. Reds were loud, yellows were bright, and blues were cool. Then one day reds started proclaiming they were the best because they were loudest. The yellows reacted, saying they were the brightest and best. And the blues just couldn’t care less about the brooha. The city quickly became segregated by colour.

But when a yellow took a liking to a blue, they mixed and created green. More colours mixed, creating an entire spectrum of colours in a multi-coloured city. And soon a new harmonious co-existence formed. Not perfect, but still home.

That last sentence signs off the book. The initial “harmony” began falling apart with a single loudmouth. So simple, but so very divisive. But when some colours became naturally attracted to their mutual differences, they came together and eventually built a new co-existence to call home.

What if the colours didn’t, or couldn’t, mix? Imagine a world of just different shades of red? How stuntedly bland is that?

Mixing creates in-betweeners that fill the gaps in the spectrum, making it more complete, more seamlessly enjoined. The spectrum has a place for every colour, even for the new ones yet to be formed.

Let’s take it one step further. Mix. Go out there. Reach out to other people. Hear them. And we will see the beauty, or not, of what we are part of.

It’s such a simple story, isn’t it?

 

Title: Mixed by Arree Chung
Publisher: Henry Holt, 2018; Macmillan Children’s Books, 2018

What has changed?


Book review, from Tokyo – The end of April in Japan normally heralds a long vacation. But things are different this year. Healthcare systems and workers face extreme stress as Covid-19 numbers continue to grow. For the public, Golden Week in Japan has become Stay Home week.

On TV, bullet trains are reportedly running at 0% passenger capacity. There are scarcely any cars on major highways and shopping areas are deserted. Nearer home, it has translated into fewer trips out – taking out the trash, brief walks, shopping for essentials. Public facilities like libraries and community centers are shut, but elsewhere it’s mostly business-as-usual with masks and at distance. Many eateries now do takeouts as well. Supermarkets remain busy. Some bulk-buy the advised 3-days worth of supplies. Staff headed for restocking saunter through socially-distanced shoppers in the aisles. Plastic boundaries hang between cashiers and shoppers.

Take a step away from human society, and I realized that it is already mid spring – the season when the natural world bursts to life. Fresh vibrant shades of green. Flowers. Yellow, white, pink, magenta, purple. Sometimes tinier than an asphalt pebble. Gusty winds. Fast moving clouds. Signs of the fluid tussle above. You can even hear the bugs chirping for summer.

All around the world, we’re seeing more of nature. And it’s not just the season. Clear skies over once-smoggy cities. Canals cleansed by the dearth in gondola traffic. Dolphins return to tourist-barren inlets. Neighbouring wildlife rest in lawns. Penguins roam empty aquariums. Lion herds lie on warm asphalt. For sure, the pandemic has hit humans and our society hard. But the silver lining is that our planet seems to be recovering. In just about six months at that!

Zoë Tucker’s Greta and the Giants (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2019) can never be a more timely read. Inspired by Greta Thunberg’s story and translated into Japanese by Yumiko Sakuma as 『グレタとよくばりきょじん』(Gureta to yokubari kyojin, lit. Greta and the greedy giants; Froebel-Kan Co., Ltd., 2020), the gist of this colourful, nature-loving piece is laid bare in the Japanese title – greed.

For too long, human society has been driven by the pursuit of economic development and progress, distanced ourselves from our natural environment, while others suffer under the weight of poverty or lose their habitats. Suggestive? Perhaps.

Zoe Persico’s illustrations from cover to cover paint Greta as a friend of the forest. Some greedy giants arrive to scamper around tirelessly, cutting down trees to build homes. But they then start building bigger and bigger cities, destroying forests and driving animals out of their natural environment. Greta starts her placard protest alone, but she soon finds friends. Confronted by Greta and her friends, the greedy giants frown, fidget nervously, and stomp their feet in agitation. Familiar? Maybe.

Well, the next page shows the greedy giants appreciating the simple things, slowing things down – actually enjoying life. And finally, they return to live with their natural environment. A happy ending for all.

Other than the ending, the similarities to real life are uncanny, except that our current stay-home situation is being enforced upon us by an invisible threat to our lives. Greta Thunberg’s movement remains an urgent undertaking. One that requires global coordination. One that the virus must not derail. Because our story continues. The effects in nature are there for us to see and learn precious lessons from. And we must surely realize our footprint already. Otherwise, this book will serve a kind reminder of our acts and its effects on nature.

 

This review is based on the Japanese translation of the original English title.

Title: 『グレタとよくばりきょじん』(Gureta to yokubari kyojin, lit. Greta and the greedy giants) by Zoë Tucker, illustrated by Zoe Persico, translated by Yumiko Sakuma
Publisher: Froebel-Kan Co., Ltd., 2020

There’s more to being clever


Book review, from Tokyo – Mid March. The World Health Organization raised the coronavirus outbreak to a global pandemic. School in Japan has been abruptly suspended since mid February following a school-related cluster in Hokkaido. March 11 events, exhibitions, concerts, the Olympics. Postponed.

This widening enforced lockdown coincides with the coming of spring. A time for renewal and new beginnings. Bordering the old and new academic and business years in Japan, this period is also marked by its famed sakura viewing season. Young people in formal graduation dress. Graduates and adults moving to new workplaces and offices. In a meritocracy, education ties in closely with climbing the rungs of the social ladder. I took this opportunity to take an idle adolescent mind off her younger sibling and the passing bug to gift my child a paper guide to lifelong learning.

Takashi Saito’s 『本当の「頭のよさ」ってなんだろう』(Hontou no “atama no yosa” tte nandarou, lit., The real meaning of being “clever”; Seibundo Shinkosha Publishing Co., Ltd., 2019) starts by questioning why some people succeed in life despite not getting good grades in school. He reveals that grades measure performance on a tested scope, not necessarily the ability to adapt, innovate or be creative. Besides education, school, he suggests, offers the chance to learn how to live as a social being, a safe, controlled environment where children can learn about themselves and build their own identity. Advocating the benefits of institutionalized education, he opines that specializing in a certain field too early only limits one’s potential, and sowing the seeds of learning in a broad education helps to grow them into a rich forest of knowledge. And from that forest will one find personal purpose.

Saito’s guide to lifelong learning persuades readers to set aside the obsession with making the grade. Because we only have so much time, an overemphasis on beating the test will surely come at the expense of the pursuit of more holistic, wholesome goals. Bring that into the corporate world and we will see shadows of a scandal in the making.

Humanity is facing a test. A test where we cannot merely seek to make the grade by seeking those low numbers. Since the outbreak began, surges in confirmed cases have occupied our minds, the airwaves, and targeted news feeds. To pass this test well, we need knowledge and coordination from our best informed minds and trusted leaders and cooperation from a calm, informed public. And then in Japan, nature summoned a morning of snowfall after a day that topped 23 degrees Celsius last weekend. Surely no one will forget the larger problem requiring global leadership and coordination – humanity and the climate. Should this book serve its purpose, then we will find many more children building more forests of knowledge for humanity. 

Title: 『本当の「頭のよさ」ってなんだろう』(Hontou no “atama no yosa” tte nandarou; lit., The real meaning of being “clever”) by Takashi Saito
Publisher: Seibundo Shinkosha Publishing Co., Ltd., 2019

Shaping a new normal


From Tokyo, book review – Fresh into a new year and already past the first weekend school event. The academic year’s last event is an art and craft work exhibition to demonstrate a year of learning. Parents turned out in numbers as school children mingled. Some weaved through ambling visitors to a random point B, others wandered around searching for a favourite piece to jot down notes for their reports. Art, student curators, eager parents and wide-eyed toddlers. Without my trusted informers (children), some notable absentees would have stayed out of mind.

Some Primary 6 children haven’t reported back since the new year holidays, apparently preparing for the upcoming secondary school entrance exam season. Someone is rumoured to be suffering from burnout. Maybe some other kid is down with fever? Or was flu suspected? Who really knows what’s happening anyway?

Syoichi Tanazono’s『学校へ行けない僕と9人の先生』(Gakkou e ikenai boku to kyuunin no sensei, lit. Me who couldn’t go to school and 9 teachers; Action Comics, 2015) offers a peek into the mind of a boy who found going to school almost impossible. Throughout the comic, Masatomo Tanahashi struggles with flashback dreams of a tall dark shadow stalking him, which later turned into a migraine that kept him away from the classroom.

Tanahashi’s story begins in his early days of Primary 1. He was finding it hard to follow the lesson in class one day, and luck had it that his form teacher (No. 1) Ms. Oshima posed him a question. When he admitted that he couldn’t understand, she slapped him manga-esque hard. He had been taught that in kindergarten, that it was okay to not understand things, and to say so to get an explanation. And so he said it once more. Another manga-esque tight slap sent poor Tanahashi bawling.

That was the beginning of Tanahashi’s shut-in days. The foundations for building trust had been shaken, badly. It took him years and nine teachers – a dour relief teacher and a cheery home tutor failed to meet the countable cut – to end the period that covered his formative years. That left Tanahashi with the dark figure in his dreams, untimely migraines, feet that refused to step out of the door on schooldays, and an absence from class that brewed stories of him.

Those stories morphed quickly. On days Tanahashi actually made it into the classroom, he felt everyone’s gaze. A leg stuck out across his path. A body check in the hallway by an unknown girl. Silent sniggers. Audible whispers. The look. He knew this was “special” treatment. Dropping in and out of class, the more the teacher tried to ease him back into the class, the more the situation escalated. Until the day one level-headed boy actually spoke to him during a group task, breaking the cycle, but only temporarily.

On days at home, Tanahashi would doodle his favourite Dragonball characters, read Dragonball comics, and sometimes direct an epic duel among his figurines. But when the school bell rang, he would peer out his second-storey window to the street below to check on children passing by on the way home – a scene that will grow all too familiar.

As Tanahashi continued his battle to be normal, years went by. There was even a time when he became the center of attention, putting on the mask of an outgoing, outspoken senior. Acting normal didn’t last long. All those days away from school left Tanahashi way behind the curriculum, even with teachers visiting to help him attain the level required of compulsory education.

Confounded by the situation, his parents asked Ms. Inamori (No. 7) to take him under her tutelage. She had a track record of bringing shut-in children back out into society, and she noticed Tanahashi’s shy demeanor and drawing ability. The seasoned pro quickly identified the problems and offered a solution – a distant cram school.

His introduction to the cram school’s teacher Ms. Mori (No. 8) came with a stern warning: I can’t change the rules just for you. You come on three days a week, no more no less. Attending the cram school a few stations away made Tanahashi more relaxed. Among a mixed group of kids from primary to secondary school children, no one talked about his school. No one knew him outside the cram school. No one seemed to bother. Everyone was there for the same reason – to spend time together, play, study and learn, three days a week. That’s normal.

Cram school led to graduation, which seemed to offer the chance of starting anew. But despite Tanahashi’s valiant efforts at studying, he didn’t understand classes. He realized that it was impossible for him to be a normal secondary school student even if he tried.

Noticing the change in his mood, Inamori decided to help Tanahashi meet his idol Akira Toriyama (No. 9), the creator of the Dragonball series. When the day came, Tanahashi showed his best Dragonball doodle to Toriyama. He brushed that aside but had more to say about Tanahashi’s original manga. “I like how you already have your own manga world,” he opined. And then the world outside looked different.

Tanahashi’s story moves quickly on toward the end from there. That last quote filled him with the confidence to trudge on in life, through dreaded classes, extra curricular activities, and outings with friends, all with the goal of becoming an artist with his own world in clear sight. Not just that, but to accept and reflect on his shut-in past as a treasured part of himself, who by the end had become an accomplished manga artist and illustrator.

Based on Tanazono’s real-life experiences, the story is littered with many mentions of “normal” as if conforming were the ultimate goal of life. The bullying episodes certainly prolonged Tanahashi’s recovery from the initial trauma. That it was never properly resolved left a bad aftertaste. But the eventual reconciliation came with arduous support from family, until he finally found the confidence in his own ability, unlocked by the words of teacher No. 9.

This left me realizing how anyone struggling to conform, to fulfill someone else’s expectations cannot really be content, because it only means meeting someone else’s idea of what is normal. Seeing and accepting one’s current situation as it is, like in Tanahashi’s case, certainly helps to give one the platform and means to shape one’s own normal world.

Title:『学校へ行けない僕と9人の先生』(Gakkou e ikenai boku to kyuunin no sensei, lit. Me who couldn’t go to school and 9 teachers) by Syoichi Tanazono
Publisher: Action Comics, an imprint of Futabasha Publishers Ltd., 2015
First published as a monthly series in 2014 on webaction.jp