Yumiko is a young graphic designer, living in London but born and raised in Japan, who receives a sudden phone call that shakes up her world: “it as a call from my brother in Japan. He told me that Dad had an accident and died.” From there the seemingly happy woman’s life turns upside down in Fumio Obata’s Just So Happens, in a series of lovely, pastel-colored pages that do a beautiful job of showing her conflicting tumult of emotions.
As she progresses through her mourning process, Yumiko grows to appreciate the culture about which she had been ambivalent. Much of the heart of the book focuses on Yumiko’s deep fascination with the Japanese theatrical artform of Noh, as she finds refuge in the idea of that uniquely complex and subtle artform: in the aesthetic that excludes external display of emotions, she is intrigued by the way that a deeply held inner life is experienced.
That deep contemplation is a striking and moving centerpiece to this delicate graphic novel. Just So Happens is a quiet story, a tale of deep emotions and restrained feeling, with a lifetime of family complications simmering under the surface.
It’s also a wonderful travelogue to Japan, showing readers Shinto shrines, bullet trains and mountaintops along with mourning ceremonies and fish bars. Readers get a sense of what the experience of living there is like for ordinary families – albeit families going through a painful grieving period.
Cartoonist Fumio Obata delivers a gorgeously-considered tale with a delightfully specific woman at its center. It’s striking how Fumiko is very specifically herself, with a fascinating and complex relationship with her equally complicated college professor father and deeply interesting mother. There are some memorable grace notes in this slim and affecting book: the last moment of emotional conflict with her dad; a surreal dream; her mother’s teapot that bangs like drums when the water boils.
Just So Happens is a thoughtful, subtle and smart graphic novel. It presents one of those quiet stories that sticks in your mind with its charming spirit and depth.