Comics Review: Tonoharu

On the show, we’ve given a lot of love to Marvel Comics, and I can assure you, the Unreliable Narrators could do a very similar show on DC as well. It’s the independent comics that are a little harder to give love to. We have our faves (Mouseguard, Hellboy), but which indies you read are often a matter of personal taste.

Last night I drove home through an Iowa snowstorm after a full day of battening down the hatches for a creative snowy Sunday at home. I didn’t feel like digging into the writing or the huge epic fantasy I was reading, so instead I grabbed the volumes of Tonoharu that my comics guy, Ken, had tracked down for me.

Tonoharu may not pique everyone’s interest. It certainly picqued mine. The story is about two Americans serving as teaching assistants in English (think JET) in a small rural town. The art is in small squares, and is a simple, gray-washed style of moment pictures. In the prologue, Dan talks about whether or not he will renew for a year. For most of the story, we follow his predecessor, also named Dan, through his troubled, isolated year in Tonoharu.

Lars Martinson, the author, emphasizes in the support material, that the story paints a very grim view of living in Japan, and he goes on to wax poetic about how vital and life changing living in a whole different culture for a long time can be. I have to agree. While I have not lived for a year in Japan, my relationship with Japan has totaled 5 trips and probably about half a year in the country if you add it all up. My longest stay, as a student of Japanese in the summer of 1998, really helped me relate to Tonoharu. Dan is very much a fish out of water, although you can see that he would be just as uncomfortable in the US. His successor is much more like me, and figures out how to make it work in a compromise of the two cultures he’s negotiating.

The characters in the story seem real to me, because I have met so many of them. I have my own admirable sensei who is a fantastic person. I know my own shy students, strange expats who impose their culture upon the country, guys who are just there to sleep with Asian women. They all exist, and I found it eerie the way these characters might typify the expat experience in Japan.

I love Japan. Like any multi-cultural interaction, we find each other complicated and we have stereotypes about each other. We find enlightenment when we are surprised, we find isolation when we can’t understand. Tonoharu is a quiet comic, but if you’ve ever lived somewhere else for a while, you will find it a rewarding read. This will probably be one of my recommendations for the year as we close out 2016.

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