To all the people who love this world, in which lies Japan in which lies the city of Hiroshima Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms
By Fumiyo Kouno
Translation by Naoko Amemiya & Andy Nakatani
Lettering and retouch by Izumi Evers
Edited by Patrick Macias & Colin Turner
"To remember the past is to commit oneself to the future. To remember Hiroshima is to abhor nuclear war. To remember Hiroshima is to commit oneself to peace. To remember what the people of this city suffered is to renew our faith in man, in his capacity to do what is good, in his freedom to choose what is right, in his determination to turn disaster into a new beginning. In the face of the man-made calamity that ever war is, one must affirm and reaffirm, again and again, that the waging of war is not inevitable or unchangeable." - Pope John Paul II speaking at Peace Memorial Hall, February 25, 1981
I first encountered Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms on my trip to Japan. It was prominently featured at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum's bookstore, and I do mean prominently - there were huge stacks of it everywhere. Of course, at the time, I had no idea what it was.
About a year later, I stumbled across a scanlation put together by Kotonoha. I was completely blown away - it was easily the best comic I'd read in a long time, and one of the most affecting comics I'd ever read even now. I started enthusiastically recommending it to my friends, but when they tried to download fresh copies it seemed to have disappeared off of the Kotonoha site.
Turns out Kotonoha had yanked it after Last Gasp licensed it for English release. So the very next day I strolled over to my local comic shop and put in a special order. It's been about a year now since the book went into wide release and it's recieved tons of critical praise. But from what I hear, sales have been solid but not spectacular. Which is a shame, because everyone who loves comics should really have a copy.
Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms consists of two short stories - "Town of Evening Calm" and the two-part "Country of Cherry Blossoms" - which follow a single family of hibakusha atomic bomb survivors from 1955 through 2004. Along the way they deal with depression, survivor's guilt, radiation sickness, and the subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination against hibakusha that persists to this very day. It's not all depressing, though - they also find friendship, love, and hope. It's a moving story, at turns wistful, depressing, and uplifting, and it brings me to the brink of tears every time I read it.
Here's my favorite sequence from the book. A bit of background: the young woman is Minami, the main character of "Town of Evening Calm." She's a hibakusha who lost two of her sisters and her father to the bomb, and is suffering from a massive case of survivor's guilt. While leaving work she's just bumped into Uchikoshi, a co-worker who she has a crush on, who is inexplicably window shopping at a women's clothing store.
Kouno's art seems very simple, doesn't it? But that apparently simplicity hides some surprisingly complex drawing and storytelling. Consider Minami's expression in the first three panels - she's genuinely happy to see Uchikoshi, and then stunned, disappointed, and depressed to find out that he's shopping for a gift for a woman (which is, of course, her, but she's not in the right state of mind to see that). She immediately masks her disappointment it with a fake cheerfulness - a too-wide smile, too-bright eyes - whose phoniness is underscored by her stiff and mannered posture, as well as her gently teasing tone.
Or consider the relation of the two figures. At first, they're close together and facing each other, but once Uchikoshi makes his announcement, they face in opposite directions and Minami starts to pull away physically as well as emotionally. But then there's a reversal, and Uchikoshi pulls close - uncomfortably close, for Minami, as emphasized by the two panels where she has her face shoved into his chest - and she realizes just how foolish she's been.
And then there's that brilliant final tier, with the two of them front to back, the invisibility of Uchikoshi's eyes underscoring his embarassment and nervousness. Minami bows her head, partially because she's saddened...
...but also because she's putting on the zori. It's a nice reversal - her initial depression giving way to a glimmer of joy, symbolizing an intent to start moving forward. They're facing each other again, and Minami's face is showing genuine emotions.
And then we pull back from this tight-knit drama and finally get a glimpse of where they're headed, both physically and symbolically. They're at the Isamu Noguchi-designed Peace Bridge - i.e., they're approaching ground zero, to the event that shattered Minami's life forever. Notice how it looms in the background, the horizontal hatching making it seem hazy and dreamlike, as if it were half-remembered and unreal. Notice how Uchikoshi is on one side of Minami, representing the future, and the bridge is on the other, represeting the past. And notice how large and foreboding the bridge seems, much larger than Uchikoshi...
And then, the moment that a thousand romances are made of, where he takes her hand, and they awkwardly embrace...
...and it turns out that she can't quite put things behind her yet.
The vertiginous shift of perspective comes with a shift in time - we're not seeing the Peace Bridge anymore, but the old Aioi Bridge, shattered into pieces, the river below choked with corpses half-seen and half-imagined. In fact, their ephemeral, sketchy nature makes the image all the more affecting - fully-drawn corpses may be momentarily shocking, but this isn't a visceral reaction, these are literally the ghosts of the past that haunt Minami's every waking moment. The sheer size of the panel underscores how significant a moment this is, especially given the tiny panels that have populated the previous pages.
Manami's posture is stiff, and for a moment she hesitates, and then pulls away from Uchikoshi, once again increasing the distance between them. And at the same time, the ground goes from being empty white to pitch black, partly because the sun is setting, but also because it represents the darkening of the story's tone.
Manami trips and falls, and then she's panicked, lost in her memories, and dashing forward in a blind panic.
At this point, Kouno shifts the orientation of the panels to vertical, the thin panels trapping us in the rush of the moment and the baseline shift disorienting and confusing us as she rushes through half-remembered horrors. (Also, notice how she's prepared us for this but gradually breaking up her horizontal panels with square panels over the last few pages). The grasses blowing in the wind turn into burning bodies, into wounded victims reaching out for help, and even when Minami calms down the grasses all bend toward her. She may be calm, but she may never be all right. Indeed, when she finally collapses in exhaustion, the grasses entwine her body, symbolizing the powerful hold that the past has over her.
I'm not sure what else I can say to convince you to buy Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms. A parade of superlatives seems terribly unconvincing, even if every one of them is merited. If you value comics as a medium, if you appreciate fine storytelling, if you need to find the hope that lurks even in the darkest depths of despair, you owe it to yourself to read this now.
"...I kept telling myself that drawing something is better than drawing nothing at all, and that's how I was able to do it." - Fumiyo Kouno, from the afterword
I think a lot of people could benefit from that attitude, including me. So back to the drawing board.