One of the most primal human needs is the need to belong. We are all social creatures, and when we are alone too long, that need to belong can fester into a terrible miasma of existential despair.
Tonoharu is the story of Dan Wells, a young American experiencing profound dissociation during his time teaching English in Japan. As this third volume begins, Dan has taken a vacation during a semester break – alone – and meditated in Buddhist silence to help him make sense of his unruly life. But far from providing enlightenment, instead the travel experience only deepens Dan’s loneliness and alienation. That in turn is only worsened by the complicated relationships he builds with his American and Japanese counterparts.
It would be a mistake, however, to paint Lars Martison’s opus as merely being a portrait of overwhelming loneliness. Like all great graphic novels – and this is a great graphic novel – Tonoharu encompasses many truths, delivering a book that moves the reader to profound meditations about the walls we build, the geographies we live in, and the transient vicissitudes of life.
Martinson draws this book in a curious style that mixes hyper-detailed place settings with cartoonish lead characters. Dan in particular is depicted as a series of seemingly Charles Schulz-influenced tics, with a bulbous nose, thick eyebrows and an eternal frown on his face that bespeaks his deep despondency with his existence and with humanity in general. The contrast between realistic and cartoony reminds me of the work Shigeru Mizuki, the master of kitaro and war comics, who blended the real and the cartoony in a way that placed ordinary people as the miserable puppets of factors out of their control.
In Tonoharu, the meticulously-created place settings conflict with the cartoony depictions to make Lars’s life feel unreal. He continually seems on the verge of being swallowed up by the world in which he lives, a small quiet man without a true stake in the environment that surrounds him. Indeed, the lovely climax of this volume plays on that theme as our protagonist nearly disappears in the midst of the environment that symbolically swallows him whole. The lovely ambiguity of that climax gives this book a fascinatingly ambiguous feel.
Much of this book focuses on a bizarre series of events that the Japanese media paint as a suicide or murder. I’m not going to go into depth about the plot twists here so as not to spoil the story in the previous two volumes, but the dissonance between Dan’s gloom and the liveliness of the death is striking. Dan spends much of this book lost and disconnected from society, but being connected has its costs too. Their connectedness doesn’t bring happiness, just more complications.
In fact, if there’s one message to Tonoharu, it’s that everybody lives in their own very particular minds in every day of our lives. In opposition with the meticulously depicted milieu in which they live, the characters in this book are lost, confused, and broken in profound ways.
That is a message that stuck in my head long after I finished Tonoharu, as I turned to my meticulously well-designed world to find my particular space in it.