by Ko Yano; translated by Michael Brase
published by Japan & Stuff Press; $13 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) is a beloved poet and children’s author in Japan. His most popular work is the children’s novel Night of the Milky Way Railroad, which was adapted into the animated film Night on the Galactic Railroad. The Manga Biography of Kenji Miyazawa is a brief, but surprisingly complex and information-rich, look at the writer’s life.
Yano’s biography is both a chronological telling of the life of Kenji Miyazawa and a look at some of his influences. We learn that Miyazawa pulled his fair share of pranks as kid. As a sign of his father’s success, he was sent off to boarding school at age 13 and became deeply fascinated with Mt. Iwate. In fact, later when he was seriously ill, he believed the spirit of Mt. Iwate came and cured him. After high school graduation, Miyazawa worked in the family business, but that didn’t last long.
Miyazawa’s adult life was an eclectic mix of careers. He first started off as a mimeograph stencil maker in Tokyo. Next, he became a teacher at the Hienuki Agrarian School. He left teaching to become a farmer. While farming, he would guest lecture at nearby farming communities, do soil analysis, and give advice on what fertilizers to use. He fell ill and had to give up farming. He briefly worked as a traveling salesman before his health required that he quit that job, too. It was the last job he ever held. He died of pneumonia at age 37.
Miyazawa was a devout Buddhist. He was raised on the teaching of the Jodo Shinshu sect. However, Miyazawa converted to Nichiren Buddhism in his teens. His devotion to the teachings of Nichiren caused strife with his father and are what lead him to Tokyo as an adult. His religious beliefs would also be reflected in his writings.
Miyazawa wrote in his spare time. During his lifetime, he borrowed money from his father and self-published two books. One was a collection of children’s short stories, the other a selection of his poems. Neither book sold well during his life. It’s not clear when, but sometime after his death, his writings did attract the attention of the literary world, and eventually he become well-known and loved throughout Japan.
Yano’s art is simple. It makes me think this book might be aimed at a young audience. The art is serviceable. Half the time, the art is used to tell a story, the other half of the time it just illustrates the narration. It would have been a stronger book if there was less narration and more visual storytelling.
The great weakness of the book is the print quality. The pages look like they were done on a photocopy machine that was getting low on toner. There is very little true black. There are lots of photos incorporated into the story, and their details suffer from poor print quality. The Viz Signature line is at the same price point as this book and offers much higher quality. For $13, Viz gives you gorgeous, detailed art reproduction. You also get nice thick paper and French folds. I know that Japan & Stuff is a very small publisher, but they need to do more to make their books worth the price.
Overall, Yano’s biography did a good job of introducing me to Kenji Miyazawa and making me more interested in his writings. I now wish there was a good literary biography of Kenji Miyazawa in English I could use as follow-up reading, but unfortunately, there is not. I do hope Japan & Stuff Press improves their print quality with their next book.
Kenji Miyazawa in English
There is an excellent English-language website dedicated to Kenji Miyazawa. You can download five translated stories there. I’ve read a collection of Miyazawa’s short stories, translated by John Bester. I find his stories charming. They are a unique blend of surrealism, a love of natural detail, humor, and moral lesson. Western readers will find they take odd turns and have unexpected endings. What I read made me want more.
Currently, there is are two translations of Night of the Milky Way Railway available in English. The easiest to obtain is Stone Bridge Press’s book, Milky Way Railroad. The translation is done by Joseph Sigrist and D.M. Stroud. All the reviews for the book indicate that this is a simplified translation for children.
The best respected translation, by Sarah M. Strong, is called Night of the Milky Way Railway. This book has gorgeous illustrations, extensive translator notes, and even alternate scenes cut from the finished draft. Her book is published by M.E. Sharpe, a textbook publisher. Unfortunately, new or used, the book goes for $60+. (Your library might be an alternate source.)
The out-of-print anthology Masterworks of Kenji Miyazawa edited by Karen Colligan-Taylor, contains Strong’s translation without all the extras. The price point for this book is much lower, if you can find a used copy. Strong in the Rain is a selection of Miyazawa’s poems currently in print. There is also an illustrated children’s book of short stories, The Restaurant of Many Orders, currently in print. The illustrations are by Kunio Sato.
Justin Sevakis of Anime News Network has a great write-up of the animated movie, Night on the Galactic Railroad.