Tuesday, January 27, 2004


I just finished reading the Japanese-language manga I'm home, in two volumes, by Ishizaka Kei. (The title is in English, and written in our alphabet, or romaji; oddly enough, though most of the chapters begin with the protagonist saying "tadaima," which is the Japanese equivalent of "I'm home," the English phrase itself never occurs.) This manga is something that's been very rare among the manga that have been translated: a serious work of fiction with no genre elements. This is also fairly rare in manga in general, as far as I can gather; and, of course, in American comics as well.

The protagonist, Ieji Hisa, is a corporate junior executive who suffered carbon monoxide poisoning a few months ago. As a result, he has difficulty forming new memories, leading to embarrassing situations when he walks into houses where he no longer lives. He also has lost all memory of the preceding five years, during which he had left his wife and child and remarried. In the first volume he encounters a string of figures from his past, either accidentally or intentionally, and learns that during those five years he had become a real creep. In the second volume, his dilemma comes into focus: he still (or again) loves the wife and daughter he had walked out on, and still thinks of them as his family. Conversely, he is unable to love his new wife and young son, or think of them as family; in fact, he is unable to even recognize their faces, owing to his brain damage.

I don't want to oversell this. It's not a great work of art, and considered purely as literature, it's rather slight, though affecting. The characterizations are thin. And, as each new encounter yielded further evidence of the old Ieji's rottenness, I became increasingly skeptical that one person could be so consistently bad, or that a person as bad as that could be transformed into a nice guy by a brain injury.

As comics, though, it's very effective. Ishizaka's style is simple, eschewing most of the panoply of effects wielded by shoujo artists (even though Ishizaka is a woman). But her facial expressions are very expressive, and her storytelling is fluid. One aspect of the storytelling in particular uses the form of comics to great effect. As mentioned above, Ieji is completely unable to remember or recognize the faces of his new wife and young son. Ishizaka indicates this by always depicting their faces as simplified masks fixed in an unchanging, unnatural grin. The effect this produces on the reader is creepy, and does a good job of communicating how Ieji must feel. Subtler, but equally effective, is the way that as we see more of the wife and son, we gradually stop seeing their masks as repellent, just as we gradually stop seeing them as simply obstructions for Ieji and begin to see them as people in their own right.

I didn't buy this off the shelves in a bookstore; I special ordered it from Asahiya Bookstore in Arlington Heights. I did so because it had won a prize of some sort, and because I owned some other works by the author (which I'll describe some other time). A few facts and figures: the ISBNs are 4-09-185761-2 and 4-09-185762-0. Collectively, the two volumes contain 432 pages of comics, and each volume costs 1,050 yen. While this may seem expensive compared to other manga (though not to American GNs), the pages are larger than the average manga paperback, being about the size of the American edition of Azumanga Daioh. The paper is nicer, too.

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