Today marks the first ever review of a manga on my new series for AnimeChicago “rare manga reviews” which aims to take a look at a harder to find or overlooked manga and draw attention to why it should be sought out and read. A lot of what I like to read tends to feel more Indie American comics (but with decompressed pages) than Naruto or Fruits Basket. So enjoy a fresh look at manga that should be better known but oftentimes isn’t due to circumstances of their release or subject matter being outside what most people would consider typical manga in the US (even though many of the titles in this series are best sellers in Japan).
Rarity: Out of Print from a small non manga comics publisher
In honor of the announcement that Madhouse’s successor studio Mappa would be doing an anime movie adaptation of author Fumiyo Kouno’s manga In the Corner of this World, the first manga we are going to look at in the rare manga series is Kouno’s poetically titled Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms. This is a critically acclaimed work from the early 2000s which won two of Japan’s most prestigious manga awards – the Media Arts Plaza Grand Prize and the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize. My idea for writing about this came up when a member of AnimeChicago’s manga discussion group mentioned this was his favorite manga and just about everyone else there never heard of it, so I figured this was a manga worth highlighting as it’s a touching and important work about an important topic which should be read by everyone.
Like its title suggests, this manga is really 2 stories in one the first being Town of Evening Calm which is by far the more powerful of the two. This manga is one of the most harrowing works of graphic fiction I have ever read. The story concerns a young lady, Minami Hirano 10 years after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima struggling to deal with the dire effects of the bomb along with the poverty that Japan suffered in the immediate post war era. She lives in a shanty town and many of her friends, her relatives and her neighbors have been killed, either in the horrific bomb blast or by radiation poisoning. One day she faints and realizes that she cannot feel her right arm.
The pacing and the minimalist way in which this work is depicted showcase an incredible storytelling skill from Kouno. She depicts tragedy as it slowly overwhelms the main character creeping in from ugly imagery in the background slowly seeping into the story as it overwhelms each panel into a black void. This work is short and packs a punch, something much longer works of manga fail to do. The characters are immediately engaging and pull you into a harrowing drama which steadily descends into tear-jerking tragedy without falling back on melodrama and narrative exposition of what the cartoonist intends for the story.
Kouno’s characters are drawn crudely but charmingly naturalistic, putting it at a sweet spot where it’s faithful to manga’s modern big eye small mouth style but far enough from it to feel more human and less manufactured by committee. While most manga are in fact produced by a team of individuals some feel more rote and by the numbers while others like this story carry a more personal vision. Kouno’s characters are cute, yet expressive and human. Kouno’s narrative is also believable even if its topic seems like some surreal nightmare. In spite of this, we get a perspective that feels natural as though you really are in the shoes of someone who strives to persevere in spite of the ugly environment that’s been handed to her by fate. This harrowingly realistic tragedy “Town of Evening Calm” stands among one of the greatest works of graphic fiction I’ve ever read.
The story that follows “Town of Evening Calm,” “Country of Cherry Blossoms” is broken down into two parts. Both parts follow a relative of the lady in the first chapter and how she and her extended family deals with the long term events that the Atomic Bomb tragedy has caused throughout the city of Hiroshima. In the first chapter Nanami is introduced as a young tomboyish girl who is nicknamed Goemon. As fans of Lupin III may know, Goemon was an outlaw folk-hero similar to Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. In this chapter she visits a young boy who is sick and helps him understand the spring that he’s missed. She never sees him again after that incident.
Part 2 is set in the present day after Nanami has grown up and is now an Office Lady in her mid-20s. Both Nanami and her mother are worried about their father and husband Asahi, who is going off on very long trips without even really telling anyone about them. Later Nanami and a friend of hers decide to follow her dad, who winds up taking a very long trip back to his hometown of Hiroshima to pay tribute to fallen family members.
In Part 2 Kouno dives deep into the long lasting effects the atomic bomb has had on the people of Hiroshima to this day. Diseased people are shunned, mental abilities are questioned and a general quiet culture of fear remains towards the everlasting health impacts that the bomb has imparted on the population of Hiroshima. “Country of Cherry Blossoms” is also where Kouno’s story gets a touch convoluted. Perhaps due to the simplicity and power of the first story I was expecting more of the same, instead I had a pretty hard time keeping track of all the new characters and the sudden and unexpected time shifts. I may have noticed the time shifts earlier if I looked closer at the images, but I needed to recalibrate after reading each story just to follow the narrative thread, which was very different from the intuitive feeling I got from the first story. Even though Country of Cherry Blossoms was a bit more difficult to follow it still was interesting and very touching, really putting the bomb into a modern perspective. However, I do wish that time shifts were better explained or less jarring. The only reason for me subtracting a ½ star from this total work was due to this segment of the story. Kouno’s artwork is still stunning, both cute and naturalistic it’s only her ability to put together coherent plot that kind of falters a bit in this segment.
Overall Kouno has delivered an introspective, beautifully rendered, subtle work on one of the greatest tragedies that ever befell mankind, the dropping of the atomic bomb. Her gentle storytelling gives the work a human face that showcases generations of tragedy and misunderstandings generated from that one singular event. While “Cherry Blossoms” falters a bit by losing focus, Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms is well worth a read for anyone who really loves comics as an art form and is interested in the events that have shaped modern Japan.
How to Find: The Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms was originally published by Last Gasp publishing, a comic book publisher based out of San Francisco who was most famous for publishing subversive oftentimes grotesque American “Underground Comics” during the 1960s. Other than a handful of Junko Mizuno works, and Barefoot Gen, this is one of the few manga this company has released. Currently this work is hard to find with Amazon listing both new and old editions around $80-90. Even though it’s out of print a decent number of libraries carry it, we recommend you check your library to see if they have a copy, it may be the easiest way to read this underappreciated work!