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A mangaka well-seasoned by life

© Nazuna Saito 2018/SeirinKogeisha

By Kanta Ishida / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterThis week’s manga

Yugure e (Toward twilight)

By Nazuna Saito (SeirinKogeisha)

The existence of a mangaka called Nazuna Saito heretofore completely escaped my notice.

Born in 1946, she made her debut in 1986 when she won the manga magazine Big Comic’s Best New Talent Award. At that time she was already 40, quite a late bloomer. She published several compilations of short manga in the ’90s, such as “Chojusogyo” (Birds, animals, plants and fish) or “Penpen Zoshi” (Penpen magazine, presumably a play on the word penpengusa, a common weed), but didn’t publish anything for a long time after 1998. She was a so-called forgotten mangaka.

The manga this week, which was published last year, is her first new publication in 20 years. The title piece is about a middle-aged man who remembers his childhood when he sees ice from a lake frozen over in a park. When he was a child, he cracked thin ice taken from the surface of a large water-lily pot at the suggestion of a woman who was apparently a mistress and lived in the neighborhood. She told him how to hold the ice at a certain height and throw it down to break it. That is all there is to the story, but it is a serenely captivating work. It was first issued in 1991, however, and out of the 10 works included in this compilation, eight were reprinted from “Penpen Zoshi.”

What we should really pay attention to are the two new works written in the 2010s. It is surprising to discover that the drawing pen of the manga artist, nearly 70 years old when she created them, is far from blunt. On the contrary, it is sharper than ever before.

“Toraware no Hito” is about a woman, presumably the mangaka, taking care of her elderly mother. This old woman has a paranoid delusion that she is actually Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, but the protagonist sees her from a harsh and critical viewpoint. When a cell phone rings to tell the protagonist that her mother has passed away, the ringtone music is “Odoru Pompokorin” (the theme song of the anime “Chibimaruko-chan”), creating a comical out-of-place feeling, a brilliant expression of the situation and her feelings.

Sato’s most recent work, “Botchi-shi no Yakata” (A mansion of lonely deaths), is about a condo inhabited mostly by solitary elderly people. One resident after another is found dead all alone.

Ordinarily, this would make for a serious and depressing tragedy. However, to condo inhabitants — who may themselves be passing away in the near future — the deaths of fellow residents are just another topic of curiosity. The protagonist, a struggling mangaka, dissuades herself from fantasizing about a “hidden and beautiful drama” based on such deaths, and says, “Everything becomes clear-cut and simple, once it’s made into a story.” She continues, “To live, is much more weird, complicated and bewildering …”

In June, Saito won the outstanding manga prize from Nihon Mangaka Kyokai (The Japan Cartoonists Association). I met her at the award ceremony, but was completely taken by surprise to discover that she looked nothing like the “mangaka” protagonists in the above-mentioned two short manga. Perhaps everything in the manga was pure fiction.

Saito’s past works have been out of print and difficult to find, but they are now available on the internet. This in itself is a blessing, but I have high expectations for her “from now on.” I believe that there is a world that can only be drawn and expressed by a mangaka who has reached her 70s, and knows that life is not simple and clear-cut.

 

Ishida is a Yomiuri Shimbun senior writer whose areas of expertise include manga and anime.Speech

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