Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 266 (10/27) -- Tonoharu, Part Two by Lars Martinson

Everyone's an alien somewhere. Maybe many of us never venture far enough away to experience a culture where we really don't fit in, but those places are there, even if we avoid them. And some people deliberately immerse themselves in those places -- though they might find that not fitting in is worse than they expected.

Daniel Wells is a young man working as an assistant English teacher in the Japanese village of Tonoharu; Tonoharu: Part Two is the middle book of a graphic novel trilogy about the single year he spent there. (The previous book is, naturally, Tonoharu: Part One, which I reviewed for ComicMix when it was published in 2008.)

Dan is intensely lonely in Tonoharu; he didn't anticipate how alone he would be as one of a very few Westerners (and even fewer Americans) deep in another country, far away from its cosmopolitan centers. The first book covered the fall of his year in Tonoharu, leading up to a Halloween party he attended with Constance, a pretty fellow teacher from the next town. (He has, at the very least, a crush on Constance, but she doesn't reciprocate his affection.) Dan didn't seem well-prepared for his time in Japan, and doesn't seem to be taking great advantage of it; his life is narrow and limited, and his Japanese-language skills are limited and not, apparently, getting better.

The second volume picks up soon after the first; Dan's life and apartment alike are slowly crumbling from neglect. He sees Constance again -- meeting her in the local city, and with her another American, John Darley, who Dan suspects (but no one ever says) is Constance's boyfriend. In fact, Dan doesn't really understand any of the relationships around him -- not the locals, and not the expatriates. He's too shy or confused to ask, and none of it comes clear on its own. In large part, Tonoharu is about wandering through a landscape, or a society, in which all of the important things are hidden and opaque.

Dan does pursue a relationship in this volume, with some success, but it doesn't connect him to the people around him; it barely brings him closer (except physically) with the woman he gets involved with. And I'm afraid Dan still comes across as a bland shrinking violent -- Martinson, following modern style, doesn't let us into Dan's thoughts, so we have to judge him by what he does, and the story is entirely about the fact that Dan is as quiet and repressed as the Japanese (in his own way). Tonoharu is the kind of story that rewards close re-reading; Martinson's precise panels often hinge their emotional meaning on the tilt of an eye, or a rising blush.

This volume takes Dan's story up to early March, just before he sets off on a long vacation -- four weeks to wander around Japan, without much in the way of plans or itineraries. Part Two focuses more on Dan's relationships outside of the school -- I suspect he's still feeling clumsy and embarrassed in school, as he was in the first volume, but we don't see much of that -- but none of those are close. Neither Dan or the reader is sure why Constance is grabbing him to be an occasional third wheel: is it pure friendliness, or something more? Dan also makes a "friend" in Steve -- another expatriate, all quick talk and surfaces, bragging about his luck with Japanese girls -- which follows the old pattern of the quick-talking womanizer and his shy money-lending friend. And Dan's new girlfriend brings problems and concerns of her own.

Part Two is the middle of this story; it takes Dan from his lows at the end of the first volume and gives him some muted high points, or at least some hope and some interesting experiences, along the way. We already known, from the very beginning of Part One, how Tonoharu will end: Dan goes back to the US at the end of his first and only year teaching in Japan, and his Japanese co-workers think of him as a failure. What we don't know, yet, is what he thinks of himself at that point. So far, the odds aren't good, but I still have hope that the big-nosed guy will learn enough about Japan and himself that the return won't be entirely a retreat, in the end.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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