Friday, January 24, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #24: Tropic of the Sea by Satoshi Kon

There are probably a thousand people who would be better at talking about this book than I am -- more informed about the author's careers and his untimely death, better versed in the manga scene of 1990 that produced it, or just not as logy and uninspired as I feel tonight. But you don't have any of them: what you have is me, and my vow to review a book every day this year. So let's see what you get.

I covered Kyoko Okazaki's manga Pink a few days ago, and this is another story from that same era, showing a Japan at its bubbliest and most confident about itself. That bubble shows up in Satoshi Kon's Tropic of The Sea as a deep unease about the pace of capitalist development and a concern about the loss of the natural world, as the small fishing village of Ade deals with a huge tourist development that will massively transform it. (That, and the supernatural element, reminded me a bit of the Studio Ghibli movie Pom Poko, from just a few years later.)

Tropic of the Sea is also one of the few major manga works by Satoshi Kon, who soon after this became much more famous as the director and writer of animated movies such as Tokyo Godfathers and Perfect Blue. It's complete in this one volume, an entire story from beginning to end, which is rare to see in manga published in the US these days.

In that small town of Ade, perched on the edge of the sea, there's a shrine, and the hereditary priests of that shrine. The current priest is Yozo, a man in his middle years known as devoted to the advancement of his town; his son Yosuke is preparing for his college exams and his father is still around, an aged traditionalist. That shrine's purpose is to guard and take care of an artifact: a pearly "mermaid's egg" that, by tradition, is returned to the sea every sixty years to hatch into a baby mermaid and then replaced by a new egg.

Of course no one in the modern world believes that story -- though no one seems to have any other theory about what the egg is, and Tropic of the Sea never seriously entertains the possibility that the story isn't true. (The grandfather does believe, wholeheartedly, but we learn late in the book that's because he saw the last transfer, sixty years ago -- not a single person believes in the mermaid story without proof.) Still, Kon's drawing is precise and full of ominous moments, and his dialogue is natural and honest -- even if his characters do tend to fall into obvious types, like the evil capitalist behind the massive development.

Tropic of the Sea probably could have done with fewer words, a bit more mystery, and a little less melodrama. But it's a lovely, engrossing story with a strong ecological message -- only slightly mitigated by the fact that most places in the real world that want to resist massive development don't have a real mermaid to save them. It's a fine graphic novel, and a good manga choice for people who want to ease into that world.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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