Author: Hiromi Goto and Ann Xu (illustrator)
Publish Date: March 2021
Publisher: 01: First Second
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-1626723566
Where to buy: https://bookshop.org/shop/graphicmedicine
Author website: https://www.hiromigoto.com/ and https://annixu.com/
Book Review by Kevin Wolf
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
(Dylan Thomas – 1914-1953)
Almost immediately we read that Ms. Kumiko Saito—an elderly Japanese-Canadian woman— in Shadow Life, Hiromi Goto’s first graphic novel and drawn by Ann Xu, only needs life’s necessities and discards the rest. This graphic work wonderfully merges the words and pictures symbiotically without excess. One can’t exist without the other, because too much would be lost if either was missing. Shadow Life is a refreshingly honest portrayal of aging: desiring independence; one child believing they know what’s best; and deteriorating but proud body image; while stalked by and fighting off death’s darkness. Requiring independence and control over her life—no matter how physically narrowed—is Ms. Saito’s main reason for staying alive. Losing such control is her biggest fear; so, she lashes out at death, and flees her daughters’ plans. This book reminds me a lot of the end of my father’s life. I highly recommend Shadow Life for its humor, depiction of aging, family dynamics, and struggles with mortality.
Ms. Saito (“Mami” to her daughters: Mitsu, Eiko, and Nan) is feeling her age. Her activities (of daily living) narrow before our eyes. In her younger days, Ms. Saito gave respect to elders and expects, but might not get, it in return. She abandons her assisted living facility where her daughters had put her. The place didn’t feel right and “meddlers” (her word) were annoying her daily. She finds her own apartment and avoids her family to maintain independence. We see younger days, like when Mitsu in childhood didn’t want to be controlled by Mami; and now it’s the reverse.
When injured Ms. Saito—to maintain control and not go to the hospital—sought an old lover (Alice) who provides medical help from what she learned while in the military. They had parted ways because of WWII, fifty years before; especially over prison camps of Japanese-Canadians. There were about 21,000 British Columbian Japanese-Canadians sent to prison camps—called for by Prime Minister Mackenzie King on 14 January 1942. The U.S.—one month later—did the same to about 120,000 Japanese-Americans by order of President Roosevelt (Executive Order 9066 February 19, 1942). Asian-Canadian and Asian-American racism was widespread, especially on the west coast. When Ms. Saito didn’t want her ex-lover to join Canada’s WWII military Alice responded, “And when I reminded you of the atrocities that the Japanese inflicted on the Chinese, you said we were through.” (152)
Ms. Saito has a funny encounter bargaining with a repair store clerk (Meena Singh, who appears as a reluctant helper repeatedly in Life Shadows) to acquire an unclaimed repaired vacuum cleaner. Life Shadows has many double-meaning phrases (e.g., Ms. Saito retrieves a tiny doll arm from the sidewalk and says (83), “You can be transformed … Everything can be salvaged!” which could be speaking of herself. Her new apartment is sparsely furnished with what she salvages.
About a third of Life Shadows revolves around medical crises, including a fall, concern about skin cancer (melanoma), and the omnipresent shadow of death. Under acknowledgements, hopefully unnecessarily, Ms. Goto writes “No one should use the health-related scenes found in this story to self-diagnose their conditions; this is a work of fiction.” We learn of the circumstances around Ms. Saito’s husband’s (Samuel) death. Mami donated a kidney to save Mitsu. Mitsu is the most controlling of her daughter’s; out of love; but their mutual stubbornness keeps them battling. Ms. Saito takes blood thinner medications daily.
There are loads of metaphorical, and cultural references in Shadow Life. There’s a mix of realism & magical realism. There is some forgetfulness or magical (perhaps Yokai) loss of pills taken. Though the book never uses the word Yokai, I’m using it to name some of the super-natural phenomenon occurring in Life Shadows. Yokai are spirit creatures found in Japanese culture; they’re sometimes mischievous and often dangerous. Death seemingly controls some of Ms. Saito’s illness. She befriends a chick, that Ms. Saito’s lifeblood makes visible to her. Death appears in many forms (e.g., raven, black cat or spider). We learn useful cultural traditions. Ms. Saito, while trapping death, narrates, “When I was little, we threw salt after Great Uncle’s funeral to keep death from following us home.” (92) Medical staff have their form of treatment which is mostly doing scans, biopsies, setting bones, and waiting for results; while Ms. Saito has her more direct way of fighting off death … trapping it, surrounding it with salt and believing that’s enough. An earlier protector that Ms. Saito, while in a community swimming pool, mentions is Sedna (Canadian Inuit’s Goddess of the Sea) who watches over her.
Don’t read the rest of this paragraph, if you don’t want to learn of possible Shadow Life’s endings. I did write STOP! The ending has some frustrations in that many scenarios are possible. Does her daughter inadvertently bring on her mother’s death? Or might one have to cross the river Styx to the afterlife after paying the ferrywoman? Or is death angered by the living making organ donations and not dying when expected? Or can one fight for yourself, even post-life? Or the mundane, like can cutting death’s web prevent death? Or not being dead at all? And how might death bide its time? This plays out over several chapters.
At the end of Shadow Life, there’s an Author’s Note, where Hiromi Goto writes, “Representations of older women as interesting, heroic, powerful, and complex are not common in popular culture.” And certainly, Ms. Kumiko Saito fits these!