Author: Nazuna Saito (Translated from Japanese by Alexa Frank)
Publish Date: July 12, 2023
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Catalog ID: ISBN : 978-1770465053
by Christine Castigliano, HeartsQuest.com
This collection by manga-ka (manga artist) Nazuna Saito offers a poetic, humorous glimpse into everyday life – and death – in Japan. Most of the stories were originally published in 1991-92 as the artist entered her late 40s. After a 20-year hiatus to care for ailing family members, she published several longer pieces, until a stroke in 2018 slowed her manga production.
As an elder, the artist offers her unique perspectives on memory, aging, and the transience of life. As a Japanese artist, Saito draws on a cultural lineage that relies on symbolic nature images to provide insight and meaning. As a former illustrator for a sports newspaper, she shares keen observations of Japanese society’s hidden corners, especially roles of women.
These stories crystallize the small mysteries and experiences between life and death. Passing moments and childhood images become powerful constellations that resonate across a lifetime. From random meetings among strangers, to families grappling with ailing elders with dementia, she explores human connections in a way that feels true and authentic.
Many of these stories offer an oblique series of moments that jump across time and place, like a shifting kaleidoscope. I had to work to follow and retrace the threads of some narratives, which reflect the chaotic state of mind of their subjects. Some cultural messages may have been lost in translation. Yet with patience, I could feel the subtle meanings. The collection reads almost like haiku, juxtaposing images from the natural world – flowers, birds, clouds, etc. – to enlighten human foibles.
Saito’s drawing styles mature from simple strokes to elegant lines to elaborate, detailed views of her city. The book is interesting to read in the traditional Japanese format of right to left and for westerners back to front. An essay by manga historian Mitsuhiro Asakawa reflects on Saito’s life and how her experiences of loss impacted her work. Her father died in 1991, as the majority of these stories were made. In 2002, her husband suffered a brain hemorrhage and her mother was hospitalized. Saito had to stop making manga to care for them until their deaths a decade later. Her mother’s death inspired her to create the novella, “In Captivity,” which began a renewed desire to create and publish manga again, until she suffered a stroke.
As a woman in my 60s, producing visual media while caring for my elderly mother with dementia, I’m intimate with supporting a loved one as she loses bodily and mental functions, including toileting, hoarding, hallucinations, and difficult emotions. Saito’s stories offer honest, detailed and compassionate perspectives of this confusing, painful process.
Towards the Sunset (1991)
Broken ice near a pond awakens a poignant boyhood memory of an aging man. A lotus bowl – Buddhist symbol of purity and transformation – reminds him of another bowl, another time, another lotus, and the satisfaction of shattering glass.
Offshore Lightning (1991)
A male journalist covering the sex industry and a female cartoonist explore the double lives of the Ama, deep sea divers who collect oysters by day and work as geisha by night.
Parakeet God (1992)
A struggling manga artist and his nurse girlfriend fall in love with a parakeet named Happy. This story draws parallels from the creative process to the life force, asking: are we at the mercy of the gods?
Buy Dog Food, Then Go Home (1991)
A businessman leaves a bag of dog food on the train. He stops for a beer, eavesdrops on other’s conversations, then tells them how he “built a normal life.” Meditation on small details that open large chasms of memory, longing and lost dreams.
The same journalist from Offshore Lightning visits his elderly father in a facility. As his father loses his capacity to toilet, and keep an IV in his arm, the family faces expensive options for his care. When his father dies, the writer’s memories of him are surprising.
A Mother of Pearl Ship (1992)
In a last letter to her estranged daughter, an elderly woman writes of seabirds, pine trees, and visions of sailing west on a boat: The Mother of Pearl. After her mother’s death, her daughter finds some empathy unravels memories of her mother’s cruelty and loss of her own mother while having sex with her wayward boyfriend.
I found this story difficult to unpack. An elder grandma caught in an emotional web of infidelity, shame, secrets, and money. A single poetic memory of ginkgo leaves offers her comfort and relief.
A quick view under his mom’s skirt while she’s hanging laundry awakens a young man’s potent childhood memory. Collecting butterflies in a field, he caught an illicit glimpse up a lady’s skirt. He later learns she was stabbed and killed by the man she trysted with in the grass.
In Captivity (2012)
En route to visit their mom with dementia, three siblings muse about her delusions. She sees herself as a mythic character from feudal Japan, with rocks in her bed, tormented by beetles. It seems hilarious, until they get a call that she’s dying. Her visions turn cosmic, chaotic and surreal.
House of Solitary Death (2015)
Four cat-loving residents in a housing complex piece together the mysterious life of a solitary hoarder who’s just passed away. As a manga artist and her older neighbor care for the woman’s orphaned cat, they become close friends who share intimate stories and reflections.
This collection asks big questions of life and death; yet boils down to many small “moments of mutual understanding.” With the darkness of the unknown journey each of us must take at the end of life, I found these moments of light very touching and life-affirming.
Triggers: some explicit sexual content
Christine Castigliano is a writer, illustrator and filmmaker. She creates stories to illuminate the ways humans can evolve as our personal and planetary poo hits the propeller. A former Big Media creative director, Christine’s work includes Time Magazine, PBS, feature films and YA novels. “Meet your Monkeys: How to Make Friends with the Brutes and Beasts that Rule your Mind,” her upcoming graphic novel for young adults, blends neuroscience, mindfulness and self-compassion.