Ichiro is exactly why I like comics. Ryan Inzana makes skillful use of the medium to weave a compelling story of Japanese mythology, race relations, family relations and the folly of war. With his clean and simple visuals he describes complex ideals and deep emotional truths that wouldn’t have had the same impact in novel form.
On the surface, Inzana mixes the ancient fairy tale of the Tanuki Teakettle with a contemporary — and very real — story of a young half-Japanese boy named Ichiro, who has suddenly had his world upturned. His American father died long ago in the Iraq war, and his Japanese mother, struggling to make a living in the US, takes Ichiro back to Japan and contemplates returning to a country Ichiro barely knows. While his mother interviews for a job, Ichiro is thrust together with a Grandfather he doesn’t remember, who takes the boy on a tour of Japan, from Tokyo down through Hiroshima and ending in Izumo to witness the Kami Mukae festival where all of the gods of Japan gather once a year to meet in Izumo Shrine. But along the way, Ichiro is flung into a fantasy world of magical creatures and yokai, Japanese monsters, and a war between Heaven and Hell.
One of the things that impressed me right away with Ichiro was its authenticity. I know nothing of Inzana’s background or ethnicity, but he gives the feel of drawing from person experience and background knowledge for this comic. I did my Master’s Degree in Japanese folklore in Hiroshima, and I was getting nostalgic looking at his artwork. Inzana also perfectly capture the awesome power of the Hiroshima Peace Park. It is very difficult to go there and come away unchanged.
Ichiro is certainly changed by the experience. He begins the story as a military-loving, father-worshiping young man who clings to his father’s war experience like a totem, wearing a “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out” T-shirt and his father’s sunglasses. When he sees the devastation of Hiroshima, he starts to hate America until his Grandfather reminds him that Ichiro is also American, as was the father he idolizes. There are no easy answers, and Inzana doesn’t offer trite or candy-coated wisdoms to ease the bitter pill the conflicted Ichiro has to swallow. I know exactly how he feels.
The fantasy elements begin about halfway through the book, when a confluence of circumstances finds Ichiro whisked away to mythical Japan, into the underworld of Yomi where the monsters live. Yomi has been at war with Ama, the home of the gods, since the Heavenly Bridge was broken and forces conspired to set the two kingdoms against each other.
Inzana impressed me with his ability to flow the story so freely between modern day and mythical Japan. Although there is some foreshadowing, Ichiro’s is spirited away so suddenly you can’t help but get whisked away along with him. His depictions of the Japanese underworld and its inhabitants pass my accuracy test as much as his scenes of Hiroshima. He draws heavily from the Yamato Shinto pantheon from the Kojiki, including Amaterasu, Susano, and the god of war Hachiman. He also populates his fantasy kingdom with kappa, tengu, aobozu and a host of creatures from traditional Japanese folklore.
While the fantasy element tells its own story, there is a clear metaphor; the cracking of the Bridge of Heaven is a terrorist attack. The heavenly kingdom of Ama blames their old enemy of Yomi, and wages war against them even though evidence for the attack points elsewhere. The god of war Hachiman counsels against the pointless war, but as a loyal soldier he does as he is told. Both sides become embroiled in a ages-long cycle of attack-and-revenge, attack-and-revenge. I didn’t have to look too hard to see the US/Iraq war, Colin Powell, George Bush, and the Twin Towers. But the metaphor is not heavy-handed and in your face. Inzana much too subtle a storyteller for that.
Inzana’s art, by the way, is fantastic and equally as powerful as his writing. He has his own style that involves loose, fluid brush strokes. I found it entirely fitting that his art style is rarely black and white, but relies heavily on shades of gray, just like the ideology that makes up his story. The whole tone of the comic and the art is personal, and you can tell that this comic means something to Inzana.
I have read that Inzana uses his color palette to distinguish between the real and fantasy Japan, and that is the only thing I regret about my black-and-white advanced review copy — I realize I am not seeing this work in its full splendor. The comic looks fantastic as it is, and I think it works perfectly fine in black and white, but as skillfully as Inzana handles the story and the art I am sure he handles the colors impressively.
It says on the back cover that this is Ryan Inzana’s second graphic novel. I had never heard of him before Ichiro, but I will be looking up his previous work as well as keeping an eye on him in the future.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the ’90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.