My father is in his last days. We know it. He knows it. But gosh is he stubborn about how those last days are going to go. He’s still of sound mind, though his body is failing him, but he’s got enough get up and go left in him to demand that we allow him some level of independence. In Shadow Life, Kumiko’s children aren’t quite as understanding as we are, which is why Kumi runs away from the assisted living home they have sent her off to. But while she’s able to escape her daughters, there’s nowhere Kumiko can hide from Death’s Shadow.
Hiromi Goto (writer), Ann Xu (artist)
March 30, 2021
My first thought when reading this book was, “we’re not that bad, are we?” referring to my siblings and me as we try to wrangle my father’s daily needs. I’d like to say. “no, no we’re not,” but reading Shadow Life makes me think we could stand to lighten up a bit on our father and be more respectful of his desires, even if we’re sure that what we’re doing is for his own good. Amazing how the children become the parents as life reverses and we take all the lessons we learned from them and inflict upon them our overbearing love and protection. And given how overbearing her daughter is, it’s really no wonder that seventy-six-year-old Kumiko ventures off on her own, also freeing herself from the “meddlesome” folks at the assisted living home.
Shadow Life begins with this escape, as Kumiko packs up a few of her belongings and sneaks off through back stairs and alleys. She’s clearly been planning this caper for a while, as there’s a cozy little apartment waiting for her. Along the way and afterwards, she picks up a few trinkets to add to this cozy little place of her own, which artist Ann Xu takes careful time to depict. From the simple table with its laptop resting atop it, to the bookshelf laden with books and paraphernalia, Xu creates an inviting home that speaks of independence, simplicity, and comfort on one’s own terms. What more could anyone want?
Unfortunately, what Kumiko seemingly doesn’t realize is that she was followed on her escapade by an ominous shadow. Because one does not simply escape death. Xu’s lines are mostly simple and her details sparse, focusing only on what needs to be focused on. The shadow is rendered in thick strokes of pure black and, though its actions and appearance are sometimes whimsical in form, its presence remains ominous and soon any shadowy part of each panel becomes suspect, creating a palpable sense of dread.
Hiromi Goto allows Xu’s imagery to carry the story along, which often features panels upon panels without dialogue or narration. When characters do speak, the dialogue is pithy and witty. The story is also enhanced by FX lettering that doesn’t simply produce sound on the page, but comes alive with FX that seem to move with the flow of the story, or even serve as obstacles themselves to the protagonist or her stalker.
Kumiko is aware of her stalker. It seems that when you reach a certain age and your body begins to betray you in many different ways, Death’s Shadow isn’t a surprise visitor and Kumiko is ready for it, trapping the creature in a used vacuum.
The trap isn’t quite enough to keep Death’s Shadow at bay, of course, prompting Kumiko to venture out to meet some new and old friends along the way. And she discovers a whole new world beyond death that seeks her attention.
Shadow Life is an exploration of age and autonomy and death, but it takes some unexpected turns, touching on even weightier topics, including Japanese Canadian history during World War II, as Kumiko rekindles an old relationship and the reasons why that relationship ended long ago. It’s a touching book that reminds us that our elders have often lived long and varied lives and, as their lives draw to a close, the need for the connections to those memories and experiences remains just as important as their care.