You can almost hear it


Book review, from Tokyo – Rain. I remember those days huddled up indoors, safely away from the seemingly endless rumbling. Peering through the windows at those blinding white streaks crackling across the sky. Walking around outside in those suddenly leaky shoes and soggy socks that squish with every step. Drenched clothes that stick to the skin, and those drippy trousers that strangely feel a whole lot heavier. None of that in Yuko Ohnari’s『どしゃぶり』(Doshaburi, lit. Downpour), a charming story of a boy meeting a sudden downpour right in front of his house.

He is on his way out, stepping gingerly over the burning porch, when he spots a towering gray cloud floating this way. The first drops begin to fall. Pitter, patter, plop. That’s a big one! The smell of rain blends in with the smell of the ground. And then the skies open…

The boy opens his umbrella. Dop. Dup. Bip. Bop. Bup. Bop. Duppity dop. Bup bop bup bup bop bup bruuuup. Bap bap bup bup braaap. It has become a drum!

“It’s so noisy!” He shouts. The rain falls harder. Faster. He notices a cacophony of sounds around him. The trees, the grass, the ground, the roofs. It’s the rain! In full voice! And he sure can hear it.

Arms outstretched, he feels the rain. He kicks off his shoes and joins in the fun. Swish! There goes a puddle! Plomb! And another one! He stops and tilts his head upwards. The rain bounces off his head. Glides across his forehead. Slides down his cheeks. Swirls round his ears. Washes down his hair and neck.

And then it’s over. As quickly as it came. The entire street is dripping wet. The cars. The houses. The boy too, of course. Refreshed. Cooled down. A wide smile on his face. That was great! “Come back again sometime,” he says.

The text is, quite simply, noisy. Not exactly easy to read, but fast, loud and fun. This picture book about a boy in the rain fascinates me because Koshiro Hata’s artwork alone could not tell the entire story. We see the rain fall. The umbrella open. The water strike and drench the boy. The boy kicking and jumping into puddles. And we also see him smile. But that is only half the story. Ohnari’s text tells us how the boy hears the rain, speaks to it, plays with it, and at the end, he says goodbye to the passing shower.

That’s not the only connection. Midway through the book, the boy stands hunched in the barrage of falling rain. On the last page, the boy holds his umbrella up to the shower in the bath. On both pages, you can almost hear the sounds again. Even without the help of any text.

Sometimes, we are not so lucky with rain, with floods and drought and the recent extreme weather conditions. But the joy of playing with water doesn’t really change, and this book certainly captures it well. In the rain, without the rumbling thunder and lightning flashes of course.

 

Title:『どしゃぶり』(Doshaburi, lit. Downpour)
Text by Yuko Ohnari, illustrated by Koshiro Hata
Publisher: Kodansha, 2018

Since that day


Book review, from Tokyo – The Great East Japan Earthquake struck more than eight years ago. The impact was felt not just physically. It was a day when a fundamental change began, and continues unabated. Just recently, the decision was made to decommission the nuclear power plant next to the crippled Fukushima Daiichi.

In the preface to『あの日からの或る絵とことば』(Ano hi kara no aru e to kotoba, lit. Pictures and words from a day since then) picture book editor Daisuke Tsutsui brings together 32 children’s book creators who tell their own stories from the day. Readers are treated to one more, in the preface reserved to the driving force behind a book of artworks interspersed with contemplative worded entries.

In the preface, Tsutsui expresses a view I share, that the content of some picture books has changed. Bolder, filled with life, addressing death, and giving space to images that were once thought to be frightening. Meanwhile, others have become more sensitive, carefully portraying the details of our daily lives and those moments to cherish. In compiling this book, Tsutsui hopes readers will identify with some of the ideas in those pages and reflect on their own thoughts since that day.

Here are some parts from four essays among the entries spread across 130-odd pages.

Yuki Sasame’s poem 『よごしてはいけない』 (Yogoshite ha ikenai, lit. We must not dirty) starts off expressing a gratitude to nature (god). “While humans may be the ones to cultivate the fields and refine the grains, only the gods (nature) can make them grow. Such gifts of the gods (nature) must not be tainted by human desire.” And of course, she goes on to stress the need to stop polluting the land, the air, the oceans, the rivers, that give us our vegetables, fish, meat, and food, because why should we make ourselves and our children suffer as a consequence?

mirocomachiko’s 『いきものとしてのわたし』(Ikimono toshite no watashi, lit. Me as a living thing) reflects on her plight as a weak creature, lamenting her struggle to even find a sanitary napkin in Tokyo in the aftermath of the quake, while apologizing to her late cat for not realizing earlier how it detested visits to the hospital and letting it finally go peacefully. And how she puts her energy into painting to live true to herself and start recovering her strength as a living being.

In 『机の下 柱時計の中』(Tsukue no shita hashira dokei no naka, lit. Under the table, in the grandfather’s clock), Kenji Oikawa recalls ducking under his desk, an act that brought him back to his school days, to an evacuation drill. And then back further, into the Brothers Grimm’s “The Wolf and The Seven Little Goats” where only the one in the grandfather’s clock was miraculously spared. Their stories, he says, are sometimes cruel, with the innocent made to suffer. Not unlike the ferocity of nature.

Across several essays, there was an appreciation that we just happen to be alive, to survive in this time and age. Yasumi Kato’s expresses in『あんぱんと牛乳』(Anpan to gyuunyuu, lit. A red bean bun and milk) that we are alive in this particular time in our unfolding history of disaster, pollution, attacks, and conflict. In her short essay, she recounts her bewildering, sudden craving for a red bean bun and milk right after the quake. And her realization that those brightly lit nights of slumber were an unneeded habit brought from her upbringing. She continues “there is so much that is unnecessary. Since then, I reflect on things around me more often. Where is this water from? What is this dish made of? Where was it made? Who did the cooking? What did people do when this didn’t exist? What did we do before we had cling film?”

This somewhat parallels a point in mirocomachiko’s essay. “If we go along with the flow of this world that we have created, the days will be filled with excessive, unnecessary worries. And we would gradually lose the power that we actually need to live.”

So what is the excess that consumes this power? Kato offers another thought. “Many living things feed on something, pass motion, and leave offspring. The oceans are polluted, and since we cannot fish anymore, the shells and fish just keep growing in number. This is akin to inheriting dirty oceans. Or so I read somewhere. And it continued, must humans also be this way?”

Leaving the open question, she returns to her title. A red bean bun and milk is a combination that the police often equip themselves when keeping an eye on a suspect, well at least in Japanese dramas and movies. Essentially, supplies for the long haul. Certainly an initial hunch that falls not far from the target.

The essays and contributions allowed me to contemplate the fundamental shift I felt from that day. That creators of children’s books considered these issues in similar ways gave me the chance to collect my thoughts, and that gave me hope. Hope that the change that started from that day will carry on. And that stories like Hisanori Yoshida’s attempt to capture the strength of life and the human spirit in 『希望の牧場』(Kibou no bokujo, lit. The Ranch of Hope) are being heard.

Title: 『あの日からの或る絵とことば』(Ano hi kara no aru e to kotoba, lit. Pictures and words from a day since then)
Edited by Daisuke Tsutsui with illustrations and photos by 32 children’s book creators
Publisher: Sogensha, 2019

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