Review: ‘Tônoharu, Part One’ by Lars Martinson
Tonoharu: Part One
By Lars Martinson
Pliant Press/Top Shelf, 2008, $19.95
This is another one of those books where it would be dangerous to assume too much, but it’s so tempting to do so. Martinson is a young American cartoonist who “lived and worked in southern Japan as an English teacher for three years.” The main character of this book, Dan, is a new English teacher in the Japanese town ofTônoharu. To make it even more complicated, [[[Tônoharu]]] has a prologue from the point of view of another English teacher in Tônoharu, Dan’s successor, who may or may not be Martinson. From the prologue, we already know than Dan will only last a year in Tônoharu, and that he’ll go home with “that ever-present look of defeat on his face.”
We also know that Dan’s unnamed successor isn’t particularly happy with his life in Tônoharu – the prologue sees him wrestling with the choice of staying for a second year, or bailing out – and the beginning of Dan’s story shows his unnamed predecessor leaving Japan after only a year, along with the predecessor’s only friend, another American teacher. So what is it about Tônoharu – or about Japan in general – that burns out and drives away Americans?
The main part of the story shows Dan feeling isolated and cut off from Japanese society, but he also doesn’t seem to be making much of an effort to connect to it. He has long periods of idleness at the school, which he’s supposed to use to prepare for class, but his language skills don’t get any better, and he’s always badly prepared. He doesn’t have much of a life in Tônoharu, but it’s hard to tell why that is – he says, at one point, that his hobbies are watching TV and sleeping, and he’s apparently honest about that. Honestly, he doesn’t seem to do anything, or to want to do anything in particular – he just wants not to be doing whatever he is doing.
As far as the story of Tônoharu shows, Dan has little to no interior life; he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to be doing, and he doesn’t have a strong sense of himself, either. He’s just drifting, hoping for structure. But the structure of small-city Japanese life is already settled, and he’s not a part of it.
The art of Tônoharu subtly reinforces those feelings of regimentation and alienation – each page is a rigid four-panel grid, drawn in a very precise style with lots of parallel lines for shading. In the art, as in Japanese society, every element is in a precise place and the world shapes it completely.
This is “Part One,” which means there isn’t a solid ending – we leave Dan still feeling unmoored, despite discovering an arty group of Romanians living in an ex-Buddhist temple on the other side of town, despite the efforts of at least one of his colleagues to reach out to him, and despite his interest in a female American teacher from the next town. Nothing is quite settled; it’s not even clear if the second part of Tônoharu will be about Dan – it’s named after the town, after all.
I’m afraid that Dan is a bit of a wet rag as a protagonist; there’s nothing particular special or interesting about him. It’s hard even to see what led him to Japan in the first place; he’s so essentially passive that doing something that radical is far out of character. I wonder if he is a projection of Martinson’s – a vision of himself as he could have been without his interest in art and story-telling. Reading Tônoharu can be somewhat frustrating, as you keep wishing Dan would do something active – almost anything.
Martinson is certainly a talent to watch, and Tônoharu tells its story with assurance and a precise, careful style. But it’s not quite as much fun as it could have been if its hero was a man who actually wanted to do anything.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.