Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Igarashi Daisuke: Kaiju no kodomo

Igarashi Daisuke 五十嵐大介, Kaijū no kodomo 海獣の子供 (Sea-creature children, although the official title of the translation is Children of the Sea, and I can see why).  It was published in five volumes between 2007 and 2012.  I read the first two when they first came out, and here are the notes I made for myself then:

This is still in progress, but I’ve read as much as has been published, and I can’t wait for more.   

It’s about an adolescent girl names Ruka who lives in a fictionalized version of Enoshima/Kamakura, and two boys, Umi and Sora, who have been raised by dugongs and have mysterious powers in the ocean.  Sounds hokey, very girly, but somehow it works.  The writing is good—a mix of myth, science, science-fiction, environmentalism, and adolescent angst—but the art is superb, and carries it.
Ruka’s father works at the aquarium, while she lives with her mother (parents divorced).  Other characters include a foreigner named Jim Cusack who also works at the aquarium, and is Umi and Sora’s guardian, although he can’t really control them.  Ruka is independent-minded but dreamy and moody.  Her father is kind of bland, always working;  her mother is clearly a beach bum who got pregnant too young.  Jim is fascinating:  tattooed all over with traditional designs from each island culture he’s lived with;  speaks Japanese.  And Umi and Sora are enigmas, constantly disappearing from the story, going off to speak with fish, etc.  The plot is moving kind of slowly—something about fish vanishing, usually in a cloud of phosphorescence;  Sora just disappeared at the end of Vol. 2, although we don’t know if it’s forever.  There are vague hints of climate disturbances (an echo of global warming), and international research bodies with unknown agendas who want to examine the boys.  

But what you really read it for is the art.  Igarashi has possibly the best draughtsmanship of any manga artist I’ve read, certainly recently.  All his shapes—people, buildings, landscapes—feel really solid and real, like he really understands the principles of sketching.  But they’re all rendered in this shaky, impressionistic style—if there’s a pen equivalent to watercolor, this is it.  It gives the whole thing a dreamy, gauzy quality that perfectly fits the aquatic themes.  And what really makes it work is that his tone, which could have been cloying, especially with this kind of art, is actually quite dry and reserved.  Anyway, it’s a masterpiece of visual tone. 

Well, I guess I could wait to read more.  I didn't get around to finishing it until now.   Partly that was intentional - I have a bad memory for plots, so as much as I love serialized fiction I don't really enjoy reading it in real time, because I've always forgotten what's going on by the time a new installment appears.  So when I get hooked on a current title I tend to put it aside until it finishes, or at least until enough volumes pile up to make it worth coming back to.  That's what I did with this.

Then it took the author an extraordinarily long time to come up with the last volume - 4 came out in 2009, and 5 not until 2012.  And I can see why - he obviously had trouble with the ending.  And in this case my plot-centric reading strategy kind of didn't pay off.  The ending is a letdown.  That is, it's hardly an ending at all.  Things go along pretty well through Vol. 4 - we learn more about Ruka's mother (she's not a beach bum at all), and about Cusack, and a couple more interesting secondary characters are introduced.  But Igarashi can't seem to figure out how to wrap it all up.  He keeps adding new layers of subtext - the aquatic sea is the cosmic sea, science is recapitulating myth, death is rebirth, the microcosm is the macrocosm - until the only way he can end it is with page after page after page of wonder-filled, text-less illustrations of Ruka cavorting with sea creatures.  And then it all resets - summer vacation ends and Ruka goes back to school.

So, yeah, I was right, but I forgot I was right.  You read it for the art.  Which is impeccable, all the way through.  The long textless passages of Vol. 5 remind me of some of the flights of fancy in Tezuka's Phoenix for sheer wordless eloquence.

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