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Just So Happens

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

It’s a moment that many expats secretly dread: the unexpected phone call from home, announcing the death of a family member. For Yumiko, the protagonist of Fumio Obata’s debut graphic novel, it’s the demise of her father in a hiking accident that propels her back to Tokyo from her home in London. Leaving her design job and boyfriend for a world of arcane funeral rites and grieving relatives, she’s forced to come to terms with her conflicted relationship with her parents — and with the country that she left behind.

e_SIhtJust So Happens, by Fumio Obata.
JONATHAN CAPE, Manga.

As an expat himself, Obata presumably knows what he’s writing about here. Born in Tokyo, he moved to Britain in 1991, and has been based there ever since. “Just So Happens” convincingly depicts someone torn between different cultures and expectations. Yumiko initially responds to the proceedings with the bemused detachment of a foreigner, marveling both at the obscure formalities and the way the funeral center’s brochure looks more like a shopping catalogue. But as her emotions well to the surface, she starts to ask deeper questions about her own identity, and the choices she’s made in her life.

Obata tells this tale with an understated touch, in sumptuous, pastel-hued watercolors that owe more to the Franco-Belgian comics known as bande desinée than Japanese manga. Yumiko’s inner conflict manifests itself in visions of a masked Noh performer — a rather heavy-handed bit of symbolism that does nonetheless supply some of the book’s most striking visuals. And if the narrative feels slight, its catharsis is quietly effective all the same.