Tales of expat life in Japan all too often get blown out of proportion and quickly become picaresque adventures that little resemble real life.
For some reason, many writers can’t resist the temptation to exaggerate things. In their stories — be them fiction or memoir — weird, exotic details abound, turning this country into a sort of Wonderland that, depending on the witness, alternate between sleaziness and the Theater of the Absurd.
Luckily for us, many comic artists who have lived here seem to be more level-headed and have tackled the subject with a more realistic, no-nonsense approach.
Frenchman Frederic Boilet was one of the first comic artists to grab the critics’ attention when he moved to Japan in 1990 and launched the Nouvelle Manga movement that mixed the local manga sensibility with the Franco-Belgian school. An eclectic artist who even experimented with photography-based comics, Boilet has always based his sometimes erotic graphic novels on real stories, from either his or other people’s experiences, always showing a sincere curiosity toward the country in which he lived until 2009.
As he stated in an interview to L’indispensable magazine, “For me, reality is more surprising than fiction. Rather than predictable and stereotypical imagination, I much prefer the complexity of daily life. Through my art I tried to document life the way I lived it, and trap it into my little stories.”
To this day, he remains one of the rare examples of a Westerner who actually had some degree of success in the Japanese market.
German Dirk Schwieger is another artist who came up with an original approach to comic-making. While he spent only one year in Japan, in 2006, he grabbed a lot of attention when he turned his 24-part “webcomic” into an interactive project.
In his blog he chronicled a year’s worth of “assignments” he undertook at the request of readers while living in Tokyo. People from around the world would send him tasks to accomplish — anything from “meeting a traditional sword maker” to “looking for a bosozoku biker gang” — and he would write, illustrate and post a new comic each week based on his experience.
The aim of the project, according to Schwieger, was to make the most of his time here by offering himself up as someone through which his readers could experience life in Japan. At the same time he wanted to avoid the typically self-centered stories one can usually find in many such blogs and chronicles of expat life.
2010 was a particularly productive year for this kind of comic book. First came the latest revised edition of the “Charisma Man” strips. This was followed by works by a couple of relative newcomers — Lars Martinson’s “Tonoharu: Part Two” and a couple of “Sundogs” anthologies by Adam Pasion — whose characters might be seen as a sort of anti-Charisma Men in that they present situations unembellished and matter-of-factly.
As the title suggests, “Tonoharu: Part Two” is not Martinson’s first foray in the field of expat comics: He self-published the first volume of this four-part saga in 2008 thanks to a grant from the prestigious Xeric Foundation.
Martinson, 33, first arrived in Japan in 2003 to work as an assistant language teacher, and spent the next three years working at a junior high school in a small town in Fukuoka Prefecture. His second stint in this country was in 2008 when he studied East Asian calligraphy under the auspices of a two-year research scholarship from the Japanese government.
Travel had played a pivotal role in his life (he had lived in Thailand and Norway as well), so when he came up with the idea of producing a graphic novel, he decided to make foreign travel a central theme.
“I planned from the start to turn my Japanese experience into a comic,” Martinson says, “even though I didn’t want it to be a mere autobiographical story. So I chose a 20-something American like me as the protagonist, but added a fictional group of eccentric expatriates living in the same rural Japanese town.”
At times living in the middle of nowhere was a challenge. Still, Martinson has no regrets about those three years spent in Kyushu.
“I’m actually a city slicker,” confesses Martinson, “and would love to live in a huge city in Japan at some point. Also, I’m sure that expat communities are awesome, but they can also separate you from the native population. When you live out in the country, you don’t have the option to just hang out with other Westerners, and this can force you to get involved in the host culture in ways you probably wouldn’t otherwise.”
If Martinson’s experience was at times challenging, the life of Daniel Wells — his book’s main character — seems to be a lighter version of a Kafka story: A shy, clueless nerd whose hobbies include sleeping and watching TV, Dan not only can’t speak the local language, he has to do a job for which he was given no training. It’s sink or swim for Dan as he gets adjusted to a life in which even ordering a coffee or buying a new light bulb become a chore.
The artwork of “Tonoharu” is rich and full of detail. The character design, set against intricately crosshatched backgrounds, harkens back to the golden age of comics. As Martinson explains, “American cartoonist Art Spiegelman once said, ‘The future of comics is in the past,’ and I agree with that sentiment wholeheartedly. A lot of my inspiration comes from the past: American newspaper comics from the 1930s; 19th century book illustrations; and traditional Japanese art.”
Particularly interesting is Martinson’s stylistic choice of leaving the Japanese as is with no subtitles, even at the risk of leaving a good portion of the book unintelligible to English-only readers.
“Originally I planned to include English translations,” he says, “but after I finished the script and looked it over, I decided that the book was better off without them. One of my goals in creating ‘Tonoharu’ was to simulate the experience of living in a foreign country, and I figured that I could best communicate the sense of isolation that every expat feels by leaving translations out.”
If travel was behind Martinson’s decision to come to Japan, love is what brought Adam Pasion here. A 27-year-old comic artist who thrived in the San Francisco zine and punk scene, Pasion met his future wife, Ami, in California in 2003 while she was studying fashion. They settled in San Francisco but moved to Nagoya, her hometown, in 2006 when she became pregnant.
“I never thought about living in Japan before I met my wife, it just sort of happened that way,” says Pasion. Like many foreigners, he found a job as a teacher at Nova but one year later lost it when the language school chain went bankrupt. So he decided to open his own school.
Among all the changes, comics had remained one of the few constants in his life, so it was all too natural for him to launch a new zine. ” ‘Sundogs’ started as a New Year’s resolution in 2008,” Pasion explains. “I believed that in order to be a real comic artist I had to be disciplined. So I started the comic to force myself to draw every day. At first my goal was to keep the project short, but I quickly got addicted to it, and one month stretched into three years’ worth of daily strips, most of which have been now compiled in two books.”
Pasion leads a pretty normal life — if you exclude jumping around seminaked on stage while playing bass in a punk band — and ‘Sundogs’ nicely shows this side of the expat experience.
“I hate watching films that portray Japan as some wacky place where people do everything backward,” Pasion points out. “I think a lot of expats who are here for a short time (are) actually informed by that sort of thing and their life begins to reflect that, but for most of us out here life is shockingly ordinary. I have always been more surprised by how similar daily life in Japan is to life back home rather than how different it is.”
In his simple but effectively drawn comics you will find poignant tales of family life, cross-cultural struggle, getting wasted on alcohol and video games, bike maintenance and job-related problems.
The overall mood is light, but every once in a while Pasion blindsides you with a deeper story — usually involving his wife or his son, Nemo — that reaches deep and makes you stop and think.
This is all the more notable as it is not easy to get strong emotions out of a three-panel strip. “I have heard people compare my comics to Snakepit, Clutch and even American Elf by James Kochalka, but the truth is I had never read any of those when I started the project. It’s an easy comparison to draw since they are all journal comics, but the similarities end there. Journal comics by nature can’t really be derivative because everyone’s life is unique.
“The fact that they are similar from time to time is comforting, though, because it means life is pretty much the same all around this huge planet.”
“Sundogs” are available at biguglyrobot.net. For more information on “Tonoharu: Part Two” and its author, visit larsmartinson.com