This is an all-Japan post except for the part with the French guy.

*OMG Dept: Biggest anime news of the month - Genius Party is coming. Yes, the very, very hotly anticipated Studio 4°C anthology feature is really on its way, first to Japanese theaters this summer, and then to Washington DC for an international premiere in February 2008 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, as part of the Center’s two-week Japan! Culture + Hyperculture festival. In case you missed all the other times I’ve babbled about this project, here’s the lineup of directors for all twelve included shorts, directorial credits in bold unless otherwise noted:

Nicolas de Crécy (Glacial Period, Foligatto, the best story in Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators, yes I know he’s not Japanese and these are all comics but he also does animation and he’s doing it here)

Atsuko Fukushima (frequent Katsuhiro Otomo and Koji Morimoto cohort, key animator on many neat projects)

Yuji Fukuyama (I have absolutely no clue who this is, but the fun of anthologies is discovering new things, right?)

Hideki Futamura (seems to have worked with most of the other ‘name’ directors on this project in some animation or design capacity)

Tadashi Hiramatsu (another apparently popular animator getting to do some directing, here’s a part of Mushishi he did, ah hell nothing happened there so how about some explosions)

Shoji Kawamori (a ton of Super Dimensional Fortress Macross things, a long-forgotten 1996 arty OVA called Spring and Chaos that was pretty rad)

Koji Morimoto (many awesome short films, the best parts of Memories & The Animatrix, Studio 4°C co-founder, I direct you to Catsuka)

Kazuto Nakazawa (the anime part of Kill Bill, that neato 4°C short Comedy about the Irish legend and the books, a hit at Catsuka)

Shinya Ohira (a very interesting key animator, highlight reel here)

Tatsuyuki Tanaka (nice Nike commercial, the toast of Catsuka)

Shinichiro Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo)

Masaaki Yuasa (Mind Game, Kemonozume, they love him at Catsuka)

This is going to be oh so good.

*And speaking of which, in manga terms -

Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms

Buy this. Buy this. Buy this.

In an alternate timeline, that’s where this review ends. However, in this dimension I get the Guilt Dreams whenever I write anything less than 800 words, so I will elaborate.

Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms is a 2004 book by Fumiyo Kouno. It’s published in the US by Last Gasp, and was released to the Direct Market two days ago. It’s 104 pages for $9.99, printed on nice paper with the color bits at the beginning intact and bonus features at the end. It’s about a Big Topic, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and has won Big Awards, like the Grand Prize at the 2004 Japan Media Arts Festival.

On the surface, it appears to be a collection of two stories, the shorter first story (Town of Evening Calm) primarily set in 1955, and the longer second story (Country of Cherry Blossoms) split into two parts and primarily set in 1987 and 2004, respectively. However, I don’t think it’s spoiling too much to reveal that this structural conceit doesn’t hold up by the end - the book is actually a century-spanning graphic novel in three chapters, even though the author hints in her Afterward that it might not have been initially planned that way. That’s certainly how it turns out.

This is the second time I’ve read much of this material, though it’s the first time the book has been officially released in the US, and what’s striking to me on my second read is how soapy the story can be. There’s plenty of yearning for frustrated love in here, and cruel obstacles set in place to prevent lovers from joining - issues of class and economics drift around. There’s nervous declarations and plenty of tears, covert pursuits and sex jokes. But if the overriding feeling I get from the work is that Kouno means it all to be as soothing and populist as she can make it, so the creeping hand of slow death can intermittently reach in and knock it all down.

Indeed, that’s practically the whole story with the Town of Evening Calm segment - sweet, understated romance cruelly spiked with survivor’s guilt, kisses between lovers on the bridge transformed without warning into horrific visions of rivers choked with corpses, the entire plot stopped dead in its tracks for a grueling depiction of death‘s brick wall finality. By the end of chapter, Kouno even stops drawing pictures in her panels, surrendering much of the climax to blind thinking:

I coughed up something solid again.”

It’s not just blood, I’m spitting up my insides.”

It takes all I have to hold onto the bedpan.”

I think I’m losing my hair, but I don’t have the strength to raise my hand to my head… I’ll try tomorrow… Tomorrow…”

All of which is made all the more awful by Kouno’s visual style in the rest of the book, a lovely, stripped-down cartoon approach loaded with cute, emotive characters and no-doubt scrupulously referenced backgrounds that nevertheless seem to breathe the author’s personality. The reader quickly becomes saddened by the intrusion of poisoned mortality into this delicate-looking world, to the point where even seemingly sweet images, like that of children visiting another youth in a hospital, become almost indescribably sad - Kouno’s art is porous in emotional terms, and the final effect is drenching.

But the book isn’t all sadness, and laying around and dying. The Country of Cherry Blossoms section exhibits quite a lot of ambition, following the life path of one Nanami Ishikawa as both a little girl and a woman approaching 30, as she experiences a recurring motif of sickness in those around her, big things and little - as a girl, her brother is often in bed with asthma, and as an adult she fears her father is mentally losing his grip. It never entirely gets her down, as she’s a resilient, plucky sort, and she eventually discovers things dating back many decades that still pass above the Japan of today.

Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms, as its back cover indicates, was also a controversial work upon its publication, and I’m fairly sure that’s due to its depictions of prejudice among Japanese toward persons and families touched by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. The book’s handling of the topic is very careful in setting up the attitude as something based in believable illogic - that people can become infected, and can die at any time, and are therefore a greater risk for devoting a life’s attention too.

Indeed, perhaps Kouno’s masterstroke is how she subtly indicts the reader through her own storytelling devices, setting up certain expectations early in the book and overturning them later, as a deft illustration inside the reader of exactly the sort of thinking that her message is fighting against. It’s not a mean trick, but an affecting, educational one, successfully illustrating for the reader how these themes validly apply to modern thinking, and how a modern world seemingly filled with radiating pain can lull a person into a prejudicial mindset. In the end, this is a deeply affirmative book, one eager to seat the reader on its final image of a train barreling toward the future, unsatisfied with merely soaking in the miserable facts of life and collecting awards for it - this book wants to address the here and now as well, and confront issues of society through its beguiling style.

Last Gasp's edition of the work is very nice, as mentioned - the bonus features are particularly worthwhile, featuring the aforementioned Afterward, as well as a short set of annotations by both Kouno and the English-edition's editor, plus a map of locations a page of works referenced. You'll certainly be able to manage a better cultural grasp of some of Kouno's techniques after reading this stuff - for example, after she notes the significance of certain Hiroshima bridges, you'll begin to notice how she uses their background presence for symbolic significance in key panels.

That'll require another reading, of course, but I hardly minded. This book isn't much of an 'eat your veggies' type of comic -- actually, I wonder if some readers might feel that Kouno comes off as a bit too pat in neatly wrapping her story's character arcs -- but I must emphasize that the powerful intermingling of pain and death, and life, nonetheless, going on through happiness and farce, makes this a wrenching book that you'll surely return to.

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