That person?


Book review, from Tokyo – Remember when you had no choice but to team up with that person for something? Well, in life, we will have some moments with people we aren’t quite comfortable with. Some we prefer to forget. Others maybe more fondly remembered.

On its spine, Noriaki Tsujimura’s 『あいつとぼく』 (Aitsu to boku, lit. Him and me) already says a lot. In Japanese, “boku” is, well, just plain old “me” but “aitsu” is normally used to refer to someone who “I’d rather stay away from”, “isn’t exactly my type”, “that person”. You get the idea.

This story of “me” being paired together with “him” for a three-legged race is coupled with Toshikado Hajiri’s colourful spreads and facial expressions that jump at you straight off the page. Tsujimura takes care to put us in “my” shoes and spells out “my” thoughts in words.

From the start, lil’o “me” already seems scared of the sight of “him”. “He” is loud and brash, doing things “his” way, while “I” stay indoors with “my” friends, engrossed in a game of ping-the-eraser-off-the-table. During PE, the teacher lines the class up by height, pairing “him” with “me”, for the three-legged race at the annual sports day. “He” decides that “we” step out on our outer leg. It’s not working. No matter how much practice, “we” keep falling over.

Throughout the entire book, Tsujimura uses very few names. One is Mayumi, the name of “his” sister.

When practicing on the eve of sports day, Mayumi falls and hurts herself. Something happens. Legs bound together, “we” dash across the field. Fast. Without falling over. For the first time. As “he” piggybacks her off to the nurse’s room, “he” leaves a parting shot, suggesting to step out on the inner foot – something “I” suggested before.

The next day, the race ends in a flash. Fast but not fast enough. “I” wanted to run some more, but that bond around “my” leg had been removed too quickly. 

“He” wants to race together again next year, but “we” might not be in the same class then. During recess, “he’s” at it again. But this time, “he” looks this way and flashes a V-sign with that big wide grin of “his”. And “I” return a rather sheepish one.

That sheepish smile at the end seems to say, “Perhaps he’s not as scary as he seems.” Never once referring to him by name, from the start, the meek boy keeps a safe distance. But by the end, the two boys have formed a kind of bond. Not best of friends just yet, and that’s just fine.

 

Title: 『あいつとぼく』(Aitsu to boku, lit. Him and me)
Written by Noriaki Tsujimura, illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri
Publisher: PHP Institute, 2015

Already available in Korean from Scola (Wisdomhouse Publishing Co., Ltd.)

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

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

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)

Sharing a moment


Book review, from Tokyo – Sometimes new, sometimes full. On the wax or on the wane. The silver celestial body that quietly shines through darkness is always way up there. Once upon a time, we raced to reached it, to plant a flag. Down here, we were treated to a view of our home planet from afar.

Scifi aside, many stories and practices abound about our moon. There is otsukimi, or moon-viewing, in Japan and the Mid-autumn Festival celebrations by the Chinese diaspora on the 15th day of the Eight lunar month. Both are accompanied with tales of beings on the moon – a rabbit pounding mochi in the former and Chang’e, who floated up to the moon after swallowing an immortal pill, in the latter. And then there is, of course, that man on the moon.

Our constant companion throughout countless nights. Calm, serene, just watching over us, quietly. Unlike its daytime counterpart, brilliant, brimming with energy and life. But what if it disappears one day? Will we notice? Will we remember that once a month, it vanishes and returns as a wafer-thin smile?

『わたし、お月さま』(Watashi, otsuki-sama, lit.”I’m the moon”) by Nanae Aoyama, illustrated by Satoe Tone, tells the story of the moon that is struck suddenly by a sense of loneliness and dives down to earth to find an old friend who shared a special moment. After descending, it is bounced about by kids like a ball, picked up by roaming creatures, and rolls across the ocean floor.

The moon finally comes by an old man sitting on a park bench with his granddaughter. By then the moon had been away for quite some time. “Has the moon forgotten all about us?” the girl asks, tears welling.

Granddad shares his secret – many years ago, he was the astronaut who shared a chocolate-glazed donut with the moon! The moon will return, he reassures.

Free from the shackles of loneliness, the moon flutters back up into the sky, joyous that the memory of that shared moment will continue with the now smiling child.

Gorgeously illustrated,『わたし、お月さま』brings us yet another story of the moon, somewhat like a parent, sibling, or friend who is always watching over us. A reminder to not take them for granted, and return the favour of watching over them while I can.

This year, mid autumn was on Oct. 4 (Wed.). The following day (16th day of the lunar calendar) is when the moon normally seems to be at its fullest.

Title: 『わたし、お月さま』
(Watashi, otsukisama, lit. I’m the moon)
Text by Nanae Aoyama, illustrated by Satoe Tone
Publisher: NHK Publishing, 2016