The first time I reviewed Saso Akira’s Shindo I was a third of the way through it and uncomfortably conflicted. Crunchyroll files this title as a romance, which is how I found it. As I read on, it became clear that the main characters were a boy in his late teens and a girl who was eleven. This is not an acceptable romantic set-up, but the comic itself did not feel like a story about a child and a near-adult falling in love, and it didn’t feel like a story about a child and a near-adult meeting each other and then falling in love later. It felt like a story about challenge based in compassion, genuine compassion, for humanity. And it was an exceptionally told visual narrative.
So, I kept reading, in the hope that my disdain for Crunchyroll admin was not misplaced, And lo and behold, it was not. Uta (11) and Wao (18?) do not fall into a romance. To call Shindo a love story one would have to be speaking in the emotional language of musicians, like Min Kim searching for her “one” violin in her memoir Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung. And even then, the connection between Uta and her piano is rarely foregrounded. I can’t hold it too much against Crunchy, though (or can I), because Shindo really defies basic categorisation. It’s bloody wonderful, and you should give yourself the gift of experiencing it. Shindo is twenty years old this year, but it’s timeless, ageless, infinite.
(Read right to left)
Saso’s greatest strength is in his fluency with the nature of his medium–the fact of his work as a sequentially told visual narrative, with every section of that description given equal weight and import–but this sense of timing and poetic illustrative development are supported mightily by lighting and the weird ability to pin down primal feeling. His characters make you feel what they are feeling instead of asking you to understand how they are reacting. Last time, I said “Shindo is a manga that prioritises the creative urge to express emotional nuance over the creative ability to draw human beings,” and I can see why I did that, but I think I was wrong. Saso is able to draw exactly what he wants you to respond to, and he does it with such confidence that perfection can be mistaken for inability.
It’s not that I thought he was failing to tell his story and humanise his characters. I was just too hung up and apologetic to certain strains of art historical expectation to stand up decently and say yes, he’s got it, he’s got it absolutely spot on. I was too hung up on the idea that “anatomical accuracy” means one can look at a drawing and see how it could be traced from a finely proportioned living human (the basic and uninterrogated sense of artistic order that suggests Michelangelo is “just better” than Van Eyck, if you like) and that a section of drawing, isolated from a page or from a sequence, should be graciously beautiful in its own de-contextualised right for the whole to contain real worth. The draughting of people and experience is so pure in Shindo that its emotional peaks feel like flying. And the troughs have you reaching out to catch the one who’s falling.
Shindo, I suppose, is a soap opera, a drama of exceptionalism (Shindo means Prodigy). Its characters behave in ways that are psychologically recognisable, but Uta’s prodigious piano ability is such a strange, uncommon thing that “slice of life” amongst everyday people (a pushy widowed mother, a greengrocer’s son, a kid who wants to sneak out and play sports, a nice and driven teenaged girl, and the regular shop owners and class peers that can be expected in an average sort of city life) becomes as turned-up and “genre” as any speculative she’s got powers story. A great deal of things happen, but they all happen around the vitality of Uta, and her right to live as best she can.
Look at the page below. It’s incredible, isn’t it? You can feel this man’s feeling, can’t you? The double-take, the exhausted revitalisation through awe, the breathless wonder, and involuntary respect? This page is even better when it’s the result of a page turn and a low key, slowburn, effectively throwaway sub-plot. It doesn’t tell you anything you don’t already know, except for something very specific: this man feels this way about Uta’s playing. This individual, whose name doesn’t really matter, whose story isn’t central to the comic, whose opinion doesn’t count for much when it’s stacked against Uta’s talent and fame, feels something. Despite the effective irrelevance to Uta, story, or reader of what he thinks or feels, this grouchy bastard is forced by Uta’s skill and vivacity to react like this, to her. And Saso puts it on the page, because music can be holy and aptitude applied can be existentially affirmational. Comics, too, can be that way, and this page is moving, because it shows us both of those facts. There’s some sort of love of humanity in this page, and it’s not the only one in Shindo that can be said of.
Shindo is also a masterclass in understatement, which is another way of saying that Saso will help you to understand what people mean when they say “show, don’t tell” as a media criticism. There’s the example above, the reserve with which Saso allows the feeling to appear without any narrative caption, and there’s the terrific choice to leave a revelation about Uta’s family for the reader to notice, but never literally read. Uta’s father was also a musical genius, a world-renowned pianist, who committed suicide on an away-trip when she was very young. His suicide is revealed, returned to, and responded to by Uta and her mother, but the reason for it is never given. The moments just prior to his disappearance are shown in the flashback of a character introduced later, a professional peer of his and now Uta’s. But his suicide is unexplained, and the hardship of that paternal removal and Uta’s subsequent raising by her now-single mother is never alleviated or returned to in a way that seeks to remove the impact of his decision. I know why he did it, because Shindo told me, but nobody in Shindo ever told me, and the comic never stopped to ask me if I’d figured it out. It’s simply lain out as a series of probabilities, and those probabilities are allowed to belong to Uta’s own story, and to impact her primarily, instead of in the shadow of her father’s decision. Uta’s father’s suicide is something that belonged to him; Uta’s responses to the hardships she encounters are things that belong to her, a girl who grew up relying on her talent and her mother.
Ah, the delicacy! It’s like watching a spider spin lace. But it was made by a human. And that’s glorious.