Reviews

Published: Tuesday June 24, 2014 MYT 7:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday June 24, 2014 MYT 9:09:36 AM

Just So Happens

  • Author : Fumio Obata
  • Genre : Comic
  • Publisher : Random House

Review

There's Noh place like home

SOMETIMES, you just cannot escape the ghosts of your past. Yumiko, a young Japanese designer based in London, finds this out just as she is embarking on a new chapter in her life, shucking off her cultural trappings for good. It has taken her some time to warm up to London, and at one point she even contemplated fleeing for home.

Soon, the noisy chaos and harsh openness of the city that bothered her when she arrived become things she cannot imagine living without.

“I am Japanese ... but here, London, is my home,” she tells herself as she bustles about running the design business she has built with friends, and carving out a life in her own nook of the cosmopolis with her English fiancé Mark. Yes, life couldn’t be more hunky-dory.

A ghost from the past: Yumiko receiving a visit from a Noh spirit to remind her why her homeland Japan is better as she deliberates over her future.
A ghost from the past: Yumiko receiving a visit from a Noh spirit to remind her why her homeland Japan is better as she deliberates over her future.

Until the phone rings. Her father, a keen mountaineer, has accidentally fallen to his death and Yumiko has to return and face the world she has buried in the recesses of her mind.

As soon as she boards the plane for Japan, everything she has dammed up bursts out. Her guilt threatens to overwhelm her, guilt at not telling her family – especially her father – of her plans to marry a non-Japanese and possibly never return to Japan.

As Yumiko wrestles with her remorse and a growing sense of alienation, the ghosts of her past, present and future appear. All this would be so Dickensian if not for the cultural baggage; Yumiko’s “ghost” turns out to be a Noh theatre character. (For the uninitiated, Noh is a classical theatre form in Japan and its stories are full of encounters between wanderers, pilgrims and exiles with supernatural spirits.)

Feeling estranged from her Japanese culture, Yumiko escapes from the rigid rituals of her father’s funeral by seeking refuge in a Noh drama that seems to be haunting her at every corner. However, she gets more than she bargains for and is forced to confront the truth of where her heart – and subsequently her home – lies.

This sequence shows Yumiko facing her inner Noh demons to rediscover her real self.
This sequence shows Yumiko facing her inner Noh demons to rediscover her real self.

It is a surprise to read that this is Fumio Obata’s debut graphic novel.

His storytelling is accomplished, subliminally drawing readers in until it is too late to break away.

A Japanese “exile” himself, Obata reportedly went to Britain in 1991 to study illustration at Glasgow School of Art and, like Yumiko, he stayed on after he finished his studies. He must have faced the same identity issues as his protagonist, if his sensitive exploration of the identity conflict is any indication. The confusion and isolation are intimately captured, a feat possible only for someone who has gone through the same experience.

The parallels drawn between the Noh drama and Yumiko’s inner identity conflict also delicately address the cultural and generational clashes in the country. For one, Noh actors were traditionally all male, and they acted out the female characters using masks before women were accepted on the Noh stage, reflecting the struggles of Yumiko and her mother as independent women in conservative Japan.

Obata’s drawing style will also thrill manga and anime fans, especially when the story shifts to Japan.

Her father's death frees Yumiko's burning lost feelings.
Her father’s death frees Yumiko’s burning lost feelings.

I’m not sure if the effect is caused by Obata seeing it from an outsider’s view, but the landscape is quite romantically illuminated with its postcard images of Japan – from bullet trains and Shinto temples to sushi bars.

What makes Just So Happens a heart-warming read is perhaps its inspirational theme of following one’s dream, regardless of parental and societal expectations.

As Yumiko discovers at the end of her trip, the “ghost” that has been holding her back is really herself, and once she exorcises it, she is free to be who she wants to be.


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