by Jiro Taniguchi; adapted by Frederic Boilet
published by Fanfare/Ponent Mon; $23 US
Review by Ed Sizemore — **Warning: This Review Contains Spoilers**
Hiroshi Nakahara is a 48-year-old architect who finds himself mysterious transported back to when he was 14 with all his knowledge and memories intact. He soon realizes that this is the period just before his father mysteriously abandoned his family, and he has resolved to stop him. Since Hiroshi has already successfully altered portions of his past, he’s confident he can make this change, too.
As a 42-year-old male living the daily grind in the business world, I could sympathize with Hiroshi immediately. At its heart, this book is about one man’s middle-age crisis and the miraculous circumstances that show him his own flaws and shortcomings. Johanna previously reviewed volume one.
Volume one focused on Hiroshi adjusting to being 14 again and taking joy in being young and carefree. Initially, Hiroshi gets lost in reliving his youth, enjoying the benefits an additional 34 years of experience give him. In this volume, Hiroshi is now focused on discovering why his father left so he can take measures to prevent it. It’s here that we learn how little Hiroshi really knows about his parents.
I found it odd that Hiroshi didn’t even know how his parents first met, or how they came to be married. Perhaps it’s both generational and cultural differences. Hiroshi’s parents are from the more traditional Japanese society prior to World War II. Since most marriages were arranged then, maybe it was just assumed that everyone got married that way, so Hiroshi never thought to ask. Only when he thinks that information may help him stop his father does he finally ask.
Hiroshi’s lack of information about his parents’ backgrounds points to a fundamental selfishness in his character. We see this in the flash-forwards to moments of his adult life. Hiroshi likes to frequent hostess bars, where he tells the women how he is a stranger in his own home. That’s truer than he knows. He has no clue his older daughter has been seriously dating someone or that his younger daughter hates his drinking habit. His energies are focused on his business and the socializing that maintaining a successful business requires in Japan. Married life isn’t exciting anymore. He began thinking a new wife will help revitalize his life.
What Hiroshi is going through is common to all middle-aged men. We feel the weight of time in our bodies, in our lives, in our memories, and even in our souls. We don’t have the physical endurance we used to have. We begin to measure memories in decades instead of months or years. Death is no longer so far in the future it seems an illusion. At times, it feels like death is right around the corner. Our self-image has to change from that of the young man/son to the older man/father. Some fight it with hair plugs, fancy cars, mistresses, moving to a new city, or new wives. Others are fortunate enough to make the transition gracefully. Hiroshi’s father hit this crisis early and left his family around age 38. Hiroshi is in danger of making the same mistake.
The conversation Hiroshi has with his father, Yoshio, at the train station makes this all poignantly clear. Yoshio thinks that his life has all been programmed out for him. It sounds so convincing when you first hear him explain it, but a moment of thought, and the facade shatters. While it’s true his parents chose to apprentice him to a tailor, after the war, Yoshio had a chance to choose a new profession. He didn’t. He made the choice to pursue a relationship with Hiroshi’s mother. When it became clear she wouldn’t be able to leave town with him, Yoshio chose to stay. What he really chose was the path of least resistance, and now he regrets it. But instead of seeing the bounty before him, he thinks a better harvest is just beyond the horizon. Hiroshi can’t stop Yoshio, because he is having the same dissatisfaction with his own life. His father stands before him as a mirror to his own soul.
Hiroshi realizes that while he may not have physically abandoned his family, he has emotionally and mentally abandoned them. He has been using alcohol and visits to the hostess clubs to take breaks from his wife and daughters. If he continues as he’s been going, it will only be a matter of time before he convinces himself that his drunk delusions of loneliness are reality. Then he too will leave his family in search of something better over the mystical horizon. Hiroshi breaks the cycle of his father by choosing to see how wonderful his family truly is and to reconnect to them. He chooses their real love, with all its flaws, instead of a romantic fantasy.
Taniguchi’s art is amazing. I’ve been a huge fan since I first saw it years ago. His delicate line work, realistic style, and meticulous details work perfectly for this story. He uses standard grid page layouts, and I wonder if he did so because Hiroshi is an architect. Taniguchi is such a skilled artist that he doesn’t need unusual page designs to convey the complex emotions of this characters. He’s able to show it in their faces. The angst, heartbreak, joy, love, disappointment, surprise, etc. is all there. Just flip through the book and you immediately know the emotional tone of the page by looking at the faces. It’s a clean, straight-forward style that is a pleasure to the eyes.
A Distant Neighborhood is an incredible book, a fresh take on the old lesson of appreciating the people right in front of you. The end is both hopeful and realistic, as Hiroshi has no illusion about the work it will take to reconnect with his family. Taniguchi continues to be my first choice as a gateway to manga for new readers. The artwork is very accessible to American readers. His stories are very Japanese in execution, but the themes are universal. I wish I could afford to buy hundreds of copies to hand out at comic conventions. His work deserves a much wider audience than it currently has. (The publisher provided a review copy.)