Revisiting Kinderbook

Alexander (Manga Widget) Hoffman mentioned in a comment that one of the obstacles to the release of Kan Takahama’s Awabi (Fanfare/Ponent Mon) is the relatively weak sales of Takahama’s Kinderbook. This is unfortunate, partly for the resulting delay of Awabi, but mostly because Kinderbook is a really, really good collection of short stories from a very intriguing creator.

I thought it would be a good reason to revisit my very old Flipped column on the title, which ran at Comic World News in December of 2005.

Take Kan Takahama’s Kinderbook, a sublime collection of short stories about love, sex, aging, connection, and loss. More specifically, look at the story that opens the volume, “Women Who Survive.”

In it, an elderly woman has decided to retire to the country. She’s handing over management of her art gallery to her son-in-law and is cheerfully contemplating a future of drawing, decline, and death. Blunt and crusty, the woman also possesses an understated generosity of spirit. She moves through her day meeting with one of the artists who exhibits at her gallery, a young student, and her daughter’s family. Each exchange is filled with casually revealing moments, drawing the reader further into the woman’s world and giving a sense of the magnitude of her decision.

Visually, the story has elegance, precision, and warmth. Takahama’s rendering of her central figure is both unflinching in its portrayal of the marks and lines of age and radiant in the happiness and humor that enliven the woman’s countenance. Snippets of overheard conversation provide backdrop and counterpoint, and the visual focus wanders, as if you’re seeing the world out of the corner of the old woman’s eye.

Then, just when the reader expects a gentle closure, Takahama overturns things with a blissful surprise. In spite of her careful plans for its remainder, life is not quite done with the protagonist. It’s tart, ironic, and heartwarming at the same time, and you can’t help but marvel at Takahama’s mastery of tone and bask in the pleasure of a manga-ka at the peak of her powers.

Then, if you’re like me, you read the biography in the back flap and learn that the exquisite “Women Who Survive” was Takahama’s debut story. Starting from that position of strength, you can’t help but wonder if Takahama can pull off that kind of gemlike storytelling again. She does, over and over, until you reach the end of Kinderbook and are left hungry for more.

Honestly, if a collection had only one story as good as “Women Who Survive,” it would be well worth the cost. But Kinderbook is filled with distinctly wonderful stories, from the ironic bite of the title story to the lyrical sensuality of “Red Candles, Futile Love,” to the gentle humor of “Minanogawa Blues.”

Rereading the book is always a pleasure, as it reminds you of the range of characters living inside of Takahama’s head. She has a particular facility with worldly but not yet mature young women, demonstrated in stories “Kinderbook: A Picture Story for Melancholic Girls” and “Highway, Motel, Skyline.” The latter features graduation day at a girls’ school, and the milestone generates some wonderfully frank, cynical conversation. These young women aren’t cheerfully imagining careers or romance; they’re focused on an earthier kind of freedom – the parties, the opportunity to ditch boyfriend baggage, a new environment full of the possibilities of the moment.

In a bleaker vein, there’s “Over There, Beautiful Binary Suns,” exploring a problematic, emotionally unbalanced sexual affair. Takahama is unsparing in just about every way in this piece, from the clumsy, almost embarrassingly intense seaside tryst to the melodramatic exchange that narrates it to the undeniable vein of ridicule and role play that inform the whole piece. She’s both distanced herself from the material and chosen to present it with uncommon frankness, and the results are awkward and amazing. I love stories that balance seemingly oppositional tonal elements, and this is a fine example.

All of these stories came from Seirindo’s legendary Garo magazine, which did a nice job of overturning my expectations of the material from that anthology. Those were really more biases and assumptions, to be honest, and having seen the range of material in Top Shelf’s AX collection reminded me that “experimental” or “independent” need not always mean “gritty” or “edgy.” Those terms can also refer to graceful works that still manage to be sharp.

I don’t really have any illusions about how much of a difference I can make in sales of a book that’s been out for over a decade, and I recognize the distribution difficulties that can make Fanfare’s books hard to find, but I hope you’ll reconsider Kinderbook if you haven’t already read it. And if you have written about it, please send me a link so I can add it to this post.