Hatching out some teaching blues


TONOHARU: Part One, by Lars Martinson. Minneapolis: Pliant Press, 2008, 128 pp., $19.95 (cloth)

This account, in comic-book form, of an assistant English teacher’s experiences working at a junior high school in the Japanese outback is not bad. Neither, however, is it as good as it might have been, or, indeed, as good as it might one day be — when parts two, three, and four are finished. It is disappointing not because it is poorly done, but because it is incomplete.

One can only speculate as to why the author, Lars Martinson, rushed this work into print, and though he gives us fair warning by subtitling this piece of Tonoharu “Part One,” that doesn’t make this quarter-of-a-glass any more satisfying or any less slight. A slow reader might take 30 minutes to get through “Tonoharu,” and then, at the end of that half-hour, just when things are starting to get interesting (the sad-sack narrator’s very constricted world has begun to expand), the book screeches to a halt.

That Martinson has sabotaged his work is particularly unfortunate for two reasons. First, both life in a small Japanese town and the experiences of a foreign English teacher who washes up in one are seldom visited outside of Japanese English-teaching circles. Second, Martinson draws so well that each page of “Tonoharu” is a pleasure to study. It is a shame that the price (nearly $80 for all four if subsequent volumes cost the same as this one) and the piecemeal publication of Martinson’s work may deter potential readers from learning about an odd way of life in an out-of-the-way place. Worse, they may miss out on the pleasure afforded by Martinson’s original and skillful illustrations.

Daniel Wells arrives in Tonoharu believing that his “legacy was to be monumental. Fluency in Japanese, adoring students and colleagues, [and] a revolutionized curriculum . . . .” Things don’t, of course, work out this way.

“Tonoharu” is about the way things do work out for the preternaturally dull protagonist. To say that Wells is dull is not to criticize Martinson. It is no easy task for an artist to interest us in the sort of character whose hobbies are watching TV and sleeping, and Martinson does pull this off. The nebbish he creates is endearing enough that we cringe with him as he bumbles in pursuit of a young woman teaching a few towns away. We feel his loneliness as, with neither the confidence nor sufficient facility in Japanese to make friends, he leads a solitary existence, alienated from the life around him. We chuckle when he’s thrust into hopeless classroom situations like the lesson during which a teacher described as “a total hardass” asks that he explain to the class “his impression of World War Two.”

A steady diet of the narrator’s social ineptness and low-grade depression might, however, get old, but with impeccable timing Martinson saves the day with a gaggle of decadent Europeans who are also living in Wells’ town. Having met them, one eagerly turns the page to see what will happen next, but there is no next, and there won’t be until the second volume appears. (The author reports on his Web site that part two was, as of January of this year, one-eighth finished.)

It is not, one supposes, the script that is holding Martinson up, but rather the carefully wrought drawings he is creating to illustrate it. Each frame of “Tonoharu” is composed largely of meticulous hatching, which forms backdrops against which the simply rendered characters move, and even the clothes those characters wear. The striking tableaux Martinson’s technique makes possible may be enough to draw even those frustrated by this initial truncated offering back for future installments of “Tonoharu.”

David Cozy is a writer and critic and teaches at Showa Women’s University.