Read 19/02/2017 (Parts One and Two originally read in 2010)
Rating: 5 stars
My husband bought me the first two volumes of Tōnoharu for my birthday a few years ago, and I read them ravenously. They are based on the author’s experiences teaching English in Japan, and are full of the melancholy of heading off on an adventure to a country and culture that is alien to your own. I decided to re-read the first two volumes in advance of starting the long awaited final instalment.
Tōnoharu Part One starts with an Assistant English Teacher (AET) contemplating whether to extend his contract for another year. He recalls meeting his predecessor, Daniel Wells, and how defeated he looks. He reminisces about how hard he has found his first year, and whether he should have paid more attention to Dan’s demeanour. Then the first part of the story begins by introducing us to Dan as he starts his contract. Dan is the sole American resident of Tōnoharu, a rural village. Dan is working as an AET in the town’s junior high school. He spends his days confused by the cultural differences he encounters and isolated by his introverted nature and social ineptitude. There is an older European couple living in the town, and another American, Constance, teaching in a town nearby. Dan does his best to develop a social life with varied results. This first volume is a good introduction to the life of an AET in Japan, especially the reality around how difficult the Japanese language is, and how only having a smattering of basic Japanese might be okay for going to the shops or very casual conversation, but locks you out of the kind of communication that leads to friendship. Not everyone gets onto the JET programme. Not everyone ends up teaching in a big city where other AETs hang out and form their own community. Some AETs go it alone. Dan is one of those, and doesn’t share the outgoing, resourceful personality that his more socially successful contemporaries use to their advantage. When he develops a crush on Constance, he’s unable to gain her attention. She’s friendly but unencouraging, and finds some of his social awkwardness bizarre. Dan goes to a Halloween party with her to watch her friend dance. The party ends with Dan alone. Constance has left with the mysterious Mr Darley. The book ends with a classroom scene in which Dan is shut out of the lesson led by one of the teachers he’s supposed to be assisting, leaving him gazing disconsolately through the classroom window.
Part Two picks up the story in the run up to Christmas. Dan is feeling low. Constance invites him out for drinks, but it turns out that she’s on a date with Mr Darley and Dan is the third wheel. Dan leaves and bumps into a man he spoke to briefly at the Halloween party, Steve. Steve is sex obsessed and has a low opinion of Japanese women. He advises Dan to sleep around to get Constance out of his system. Dan later goes out for a meal and to a karaoke bar with his work colleagues to celebrate the end of the school year. His depression and homesickness get the better of him and he ends up being driven home by Keiko Mori, one of his colleagues. One thing leads to another and they end up in a relationship of sorts.
The focus of Part Two is Dan’s loneliness. There are runs of panels in which Dan is alone, wandering the town, trying to occupy his time. Martinson captures well the isolation of being in a new place and not being able to break into the regular pattern of life going on around you. These panels are almost cinematic in the way they carry the story forward visually, without any need for dialogue. Martinson also gets across the agony of being an introvert who forces themself out to a party and then struggles to break into the cliques and conversations going on around them. It all reminded me of being 25 myself, and my first job post-qualification, working in a small city where incomers were popularly known as Foreigners and where I struggled to make friends.
Part Two ends with Dan leaving town for a four week holiday. Keiko suggests he goes on a Buddhist meditation retreat to help him clear his head. Dan visits the local matsuri just before he leaves and learns some interesting things about Constance and Mr Darley.
Part Three opens with Dan in Kyoto. I loved the first panels showing different places in the city. Kyoto is my favourite city to visit, and Martinson has captured the essence of places like Gion, Nishiki Market, Kiyomizu-zaka and the downtown area around Kyoto Tower. Dan’s in town to attend a two-day retreat, which he doesn’t really get into the spirit of. He’s still distracted by thoughts of Constance and her complicated love life.
On his return, a number of changes are in motion. Steve has left town. The European couple are acting strangely. One of Dan’s colleagues, Miss Abe, has married. A telephone number that Dan calls is unobtainable. Only Dan’s relationship with Keiko remains unchanged, but Dan soon changes that. A new school year has started, and in Mr Sato’s class is a keen student who takes a shine to Dan, which brings an injection of awkward humour. In trying to shake her off, Dan accidentally discovers that the European couple has left town. A tragedy has occurred which changes life in Tōnoharu still more and leads Dan to make more decisions about his future in the town. Part Three ends on a note of regret, with Dan walking through the town across a series of panels that pull back as though in a film.
Across all three volumes, Martinson’s illustrations are beautiful. Painstakingly lined and shaded, they capture the physicality of Japan, from the neatness and order encountered everywhere to the beauty of the landscape. The scenes set in different rooms, such as the classroom, the school gym and various bars and restaurants around town, and the scenes out in the street have subtle details in the background that are redolent of Japan, from signs and posters to vending machines and recycling bins.
At the end of Part Three is a series of appendices told from the perspective of four of the characters. They move backwards through time and provide context for some of what has gone before. They make for bittersweet reading.
The Epilogue focuses on Dan’s successor and his experiences in the town. It’s an uplifting parable about how we make our own success and our own happiness. I read it on the day of my mum’s funeral, during which we had celebrated a life lived in just that way, seeing the opportunities, not being afraid to make a change, and encouraging others to be the best that they can be.
I really loved reading this series of books. I had a great deal of sympathy for the characters, and found myself thinking about their experiences and what might have happened next. Lars Martinson has written a thoughtful and thought provoking tale about what it is to be human.