Saso Akira has caught my attention with his older work Shindo. Saso is an award-winning mangaka and manga lecturer known for stories about uncomfortable subjects; Kodomo no Kodomo, for example, is about pre-teen pregnancy, and Toto’s World is about a child who is mute. He also produced an adaptation of the controversial film Departures/Okuribito, a story about undertaking.
Shindo is a manga that prioritises the creative urge to express emotional nuance over the creative ability to draw human beings. Does the awkwardness of its anatomy serve the characters’ tentative efforts at living authentically or just create a meta-dialogue about following your dreams despite your current capabilities that compliments the thrust of this manga? Make up your own mind, but don’t pass over this bold and touching comic just because you think, well, I could draw that well. Sure you could. But comics aren’t all in the draughting. Think Mike Judge.
An eighteen year old accidentally befriends an eleven year old. Shindo tracks the ways, and things, that they teach each other. Crunchyroll categorises this book as a romance comic, which would be fairly appalling in the “dating” sense, but works as a description of the dreamy, positive, gradually building respect that forms not only between the two young people at the centre of the book, but also their parents, peers, and other mentors. Thus far, it’s a romance, with occasional hetero-romantic elements, not a piece of romance fiction. I’m a chapter or two into the second volume.
Uta and Wao are both students of piano; Uta is a prodigy, and Wao is a few months shy of failing (at general prediction) his entrance exam to a prestigious music university. They meet by chance on a river at night, rapscallion Uta clambering all over everything and making a noise, and pierced, bleached Wao, surprisingly silent, teaching her how to hear the voices of fish. In her heart Uta wants to play baseball, roam free, and do more with her life than just music; in his heart, Wao knows he’s not the pianist that this child is—not by half. Wao’s intervention allows Uta to do more of the things a regular childhood allows for, and Uta’s influence helps Wao’s sound evolve.
This comic began serialisation in 1997, is newly translated to English, and was produced thirteen years into Saso’s career. His anatomical work, it can’t be denied, is bad. He seems to lack an understanding of how parts of human bodies exist in relation to other bits—an inability to translate three dimensions down to two. But the poetry and expressionism in his capacity to compose a page or panel so the reader intuits awe, the revelation of his visual coding of sound, make Shindo unmissable. In a story about the demands placed upon children by adults and adult society, no character is left behind.
Pages like the one below apply the extremities of training that one becomes used to in shonen fantasy to a very grounded story. How does this change your response to those titles? How does the comparison change your feelings about the intensive lifestyles and active training of real child prodigies?
Uta is a very ungainly, regularly ill-mannered eleven year old. A vibrant, realistic girl whose scrappy whims and desires for freedom are tempered by a cheerful obedience, enjoyment of the cushier elements of her strange life, and love for her mother. Instead of setting up a complete state of combat—pushy parent versus drowning freebird—Saso gives us the chance to look at a relationship that’s tangled because it’s full of love, not void of it.
Uta’s mother debuts with an ominous, rather ugly declaration, but her internal motivation is gradually revealed. The reader’s personal response to her actions remains, but their understanding of her emotional landscape allows space for indecision, and perhaps nuanced forgiveness, that might have been reserved for well-distanced judgement.
This comic is a nourishing read for me, who has nothing in common with anybody inside of it. I think it would do much more for the musically invested, and the cartoonist struggling with their own limitations. Frightened parents, resentful kids—it’s a little bit Little Miss Sunshine and a little bit Beck, a story about resenting your limits and burrowing through your fears. And appreciating the people who help you along, or who are just also there as you live, even if they’re annoying, irritating, obnoxious, unsuitable, unwholesome.