You might remember a few weeks ago my friend and Comics Bulletin columnist Zack Davisson called me out in one of his Comics Grind and Rewind columns for not reading manga books. Zack told me, in no uncertain terms, that my prejudices against manga were silly and shallow. Comics are comics. Quality is quality. And it doesn’t matter how or where the comics come from.
So when my friend Sean Michael Wilson contacted me and asked me to read his new book, Yakuza Moon, I was really enthusiastic. This new manga is an adaptation of the autobiography of a gangster’s daughter and promised to make for really interesting reading. I grabbed the book with enthusiasm and plunged in with real excitement. And, as Zack predicted, I found the book to be completely enthralling. It didn’t matter what country this book came from; the life of Shoko Tendo is an eye-opening and fascinating story.
Shoko Tendo is a survivor. She survives childhood sexual abuse and drug addiction, incredibly abusive husbands and her own very poor choices. She’s also loving and surprising naïve. She’s thoroughly devoted to her parents and constantly in search for something that comes close to true love. But through the story she’s never a sad or pathetic character; instead, Shoko feels like a complex woman who’s continually struggling to find her place in the world.
Appropriately for a comic adapted from an autobiography, this book really puts readers inside the head of its protagonist. We get to experience Shoko’s world from her perspective, imagine her world with her voice, and see the world through her eyes.
I have to admit that there’s an element of sordidness about this book that at times make it a bit difficult in some ways. There is explicit sex in this book, along with vicious violence, drug use, major medical disasters and emotional betrayals. In outline the book sounds a bit like an unrealistic and tragic soap opera.
But of course all the events in this book are true. Shoko Tendo actually lived through these events. She actually got addicted to huffing paint thinner at 15 and injecting heroin just a year or two later. It’s moving, intense and incredibly moving to see how her love for heroin causes Shoko to make so many bad decisions in her life. All the while she’s on heroin, Shoko feels like it’s a tool to help her find intimacy in her relationships. But actually just the opposite happens: the drug builds a wall between her and her experiences, distorting her perceptions of the events that she lives through.
As she drifts from detention center to bad relationship to the streets, we really see the struggles that this girl has to live with. She only has a sixth grade education but she has an intense will to survive. We see the neglect and pain of Shoko’s childhood, and that pain informs all the actions that she takes in her life.
While I found the core plot of the book to be very interesting, I haven’t discussed the remarkable job that Sean Michael Wilson and Michiru Morikawa do in adapting this story. I was struck by the intimacy I felt for Shoko and how effectively Wilson and Morikawa brought the character to life.
I did have an interesting reaction to this book, once that I don’t usually have with autobiographical comics. For some reason I felt that the depiction of this story actually distanced me a bit from the story that was being told. Perhaps due to Morikawa’s use of some tropes of Japanese comics, I found myself surprisingly distanced from Shoko’s story at times.
Perhaps part of the problem was in the slickness of the art. I’m not sure that Morikawa effectively showed the sordidness and sadness of Shoko’s life in this adaptation. There’s an inherent smoothness and slickness to the art that doesn’t quite match the intensity of the story that’s being told. I found my mind drifting and pondering how some American cartoonists might depict some of the scenes depicted here.
But of course that’s an extremely unfair criticism. Morikawa does a really effective job of telling Shoko’s story in a way that completely makes sense for her style. She does a really wonderful job of showing the details of Shoko’s world, especially the story of her inner life. I really enjoyed the way that Morikawa gave Shoko an interesting inner life, and appropriately enough an inner life that reflects her youth and naiveté about the world.
As Zack points out, manga is not a genre. Manga is simply a word that applies to stories presented in comic form. This book reminds me of that adage. It’s pretty damn terrific, no matter what country it comes from.