Price Tag: 1080 JPY
I am happy to announce the second in my series of book reviews for COMIC ESSAYS (see also FUN WITH COMIC ESSAYS side page). After enjoying the first volume of Nordic Girl Åsa discovers the Mysteries of Japan・北欧女子オーサが見つけた日本の不思議 (see review) quite a bit, I got myself also the sequel, which was published back in September. Whereas I was about 6 months behind the release for the first book, for the second volume I have miraculously managed to post slightly more opportune. Then I shall get started right away with the latest book review of mine, with which I hope to tempt you in reading the book yourself.
Flashback…like for many teens of the generation, Åsa Ekström‘s passion for anime and manga was ignited the moment she got in touch with that exotic pop-culture swapping over from Japan to the West in the early, mid 90’s. For her everything started with an email from a friend introducing her to the early TV series of SAILOR MOON (少女戦士セーラームーン) that would instantly turn her world upside down. After several visits to Japan, Åsa, who gained a background as illustrator in her home country Sweden, eventually decided to move to Tokyo in 2011 to attend a graphic design college. For her course project, she started with a BLOG, where she has been illustrating and narrating her discoveries of her everyday life in Japan and her pursuit of becoming a MANGAKA (漫画家・まんがか) in Japan. Her first book turned out to be a huge hit. With over 80’000 copies sold for her debut work, a sequel only seemed the natural course of things.
By just opening the book and flicking through some of the pages, one will immediately notice two differences to the first book. Firstly, the successor has slightly more pages with 157 in total. Second and more relevant for readers, contrary to the first volume, this time reading aids, or FURIGANA (振り仮名・ふりがな) is fully provided, at least for all the comic strips. The additional comment boxes remain the same without reading helps. I think this was a measure taken to pitch the book also to foreign readers in Japan and elsewhere. Also for me, this could be one of the reasons, why I was able to advance speedier in the reading process this time around. Although the texts in the speech bubbles not being necessarily long, looking up less words definitely facilitates the reading flow. Otherwise, the layout of the essay comic follows pretty much the previous model. The first 30 some pages are pleasantly colorful, the rest of the pages in typical manga style in simple black and white print. Western comics are usually full color, so merging the two genres into one creates, intentionally or unintentionally, a nice mix that suits her as a foreign artist in a mainly Japanese discipline.
In the 6 parts of her latest work, Åsa, now in her fourth year, continues her delightful journey in discovering and uncovering mysteries of Japan. After the short introduction of herself and recapturing events of her debut, subsequent episodes mostly play on stories after the publication of her first volume. At this stage it can be forestalled that the content shifted towards more personal stories of her own, like in the chapters when her Swedish friends visit (Chap. 2), her retrospect into her adolescent years (Chap. 3) and her debut as a mangaka in Japan (Chap. 4), which might, but necessarily has to be less interesting to readers. Personally speaking, whether it was for the first volume or the second one, I always enjoyed her cultural references as seen in the strip on the right hand side the most, since I could relate to them through own experiences. In this illustrated case it is about MEISHI (名刺・めいし; business cards), indispensable in Japan’s business environment, which may also be found in Chapter 1 together with other amusing accounts like the riddles of Japanese language and rules for the sake of rules. Chapter 2 treats mainly the stay over of her friends to Japan and their quirks, which makes clear for example that catering a vegan in Japan has its daunting challenges and explains for example on dos and don’ts in karaoke bars. Also the visit of the ladies to the public bath gets a good share. More I won’t reveal at this stage ;).
Chapters 3 and 4 are a bit more heavy on the OTAKU (オタク; let’s say ‘enthusiasts’) culture and manga scene. I found slightly more challenging to read through because there was topic related vocabulary, I was not acquainted with. A contemporary dictionary however will disclose the vast part of riddles of the otaku parlance and terminology from the drawing industry, i.e. ネーム (neemu), which means ‘storyboard’ or アフレコ (afureko) that is an abbreviation of ‘additional dialogue recording’ – go figure ;)! On the other hand, for people with interest into the trait it can be insightful to learn from her experiences. Åsa published works in both countries, so she also points out some interesting differences in the publishing markets of Sweden and Japan. In Sweden mangakas seem to work more independently and determine their own pace, on the contrary in Japan the publishing house is more involved with feedback and schedules are set more tightly.
Given that she had only about half a year between the release of the two volumes, it seems to have been indeed a very productive period, additionally filled with all sorts of book introductory presentations and interviews. Definitely a highlight of that time, should become her personal encounter with one of her role model manga artists TAKAHASHI RUMIKO (高橋留美子・たかはしるみこ), creator of well-know series like RANMA ½, which she devotes two pages to nearly at the end of the book. Also her friend and fellow-foreigner BENJAMIN BOAS, of whom I have also a comic essay (Everything I know about Japan I learned from Manga and Video Games; 日本のことは、マンガとゲームで学びました) in queue got his appearance. His manga essay is probably going to be my next review when time permits. A part I could well identify with in Chapter 3, since Åsa and I are of the same generation, was when she speaks about her teenage years and the advent of the Japanese pop-culture in Europe. Even though I was probably not as much of manga/anime otaku, I remember with a smile all the Saturday afternoon’s my brother and I ‘pilgrimaged’ to the only dedicated store available to sell related products. I also got to shake my head about how much time I spent in front of the computer (internet at snail speed via the telephone line), to grasp on and download anything I could possible source for my favorite series. There was not much at the time, neither in English nor my own language, so it was like finding ‘treasures’…oh boy! While reading those episodes of Åsa, I unexpectedly could discover and recall mysteries of my own past that lay hidden somewhere in my memory :).
The second book falls nothing short to the debut work. Often sequels turn out scarcer than the forerunner, yet she managed to pack even more contents in it. I felt the first one was slightly better structured in the order how some episodes occurred, but other than that it was again an entertaining and enjoyable read, I can only recommend. I can also take out a couple useful words and expressions for my vocabulary. I hope she can keep her ambitions up, it is a unique chance and career of hers. She has a respectable track record by now and an excellent stepping stone into the industry. With her blog still going strong and an increasing readership I could well imagine her publishing a third volume. The first book meanwhile also appeared in Taiwanese, which represents yet another milestone in her project. One can only congratulate Åsa for her achievements and I wish her all the best for her further career.
I hope that this review is informative and interesting for the audience. The book can be purchased at AMAZON.JP for instance that offers also international shipments. Anyone reading the book, please drop a line in the comments. I would be happy to hear your impressions about it. Then, for those, who have some more time to spare, I added an extra further down below in reference to one of her stories :).
People, who will have read the book will immediately make the link. It is not Åsa in the video, but another foreign lady going by the name JENYA, an anime voice actress (声優・せいゆう) from Russia. Her command of the Japanese language is excellent, see yourself (Japanese only)…