Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Distant Neighborhood, Vol. 1 by Jiro Taniguchi

Usually, I would try to hold a two-book series to review together. But I got A Distant Neighborhood, Vol. 1 from the library, and there's no telling when that library will disgorge Vol. 2, so I might as well type now while the book is in front of me and my memories are as clear as they'll ever be.

A great transition here would be to say that this book -- a manga originally written and drawn in 1998 by Jiro Taniguchi -- is all about memory, but that's really not true. It's a time-slip book, so it's about the realness of the past rather than the way we remember and remake the past in the present. Distant Neighborhood is a fantasy, because its central events are the impossible ones millions of us have thought about and wished for and mulled over.

We can't actually go back to being fourteen again, back in our old (young) body, living with our still-young parents, going to school. Can't slough off the life of a middle-aged businessman to start over as a kid. But that's just what happens to Hiroshi Nakahara in this book: he accidentally takes the wrong train back from a business trip, ending up in his home town for the first time in many years. He goes to his mother's grave, to pray or meditate or just have a quiet moment, and when he gets back up it's more than thirty years earlier. The father who ran off is still there, the mother who later died is young and vibrant, and the eighth grade is just about to start.

Hiroshi at first wants to go back to his old life -- he worries about his wife and two daughters, even though he neglects them most of the time -- but then sinks back into the life of a junior high schooler. It's easy for him, the second time around: the gym classes he hated originally now showcase how young and fit he is; the academics are both easier than his future job and entirely about concepts he already learned once. He does have some trouble keeping his secret, since he's used to being a responsible adult, not a child in regimented early-60s Japan, but he mostly manages to act like a plausible young teen, if a more poised and mature one than he was the first time around.

This is only the first half of the story, of course. Hiroshi wants to stop his father from walking out on the family, which he's going to do, in a few months. That doesn't happen in this volume, either way. But Hiroshi does connect with his father and grandmother on an adult level in a way he didn't when he was actually fourteen years old. And that leads to his learning how his parents actually met -- a sadder story than he expected, at the end of World War II.

Someday soon, I will know how this story ends. Maybe Hiroshi will pop back into his middle-aged life after doing something specific as a teen -- some moment that he had to live over to learn a lesson or set something right. Maybe he'll just keep moving forward in time, like everyone else, given a second chance. Maybe something completely unexpected. Whatever happens, I'm confident Taniguchi will tell that story cleanly, precisely, and deeply, just like the first half.

I'd heard Taniguchi's name for a while, but I'm sorry to say it took his recent death to get me to read his books. He's a smart, adult story-teller here, focused on character and nuance in dialogue and narration and art, acutely attuned to small moments and shifts of emotion. He's one of the great ones, I think -- and I'm sorry it took the end of his career to get me to experience his work.

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