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Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010

The illustrated life and times of author Kenji Miyazawa


THE MANGA BIOGRAPHY OF KENJI MIYAZAWA, Author of Night of the Milky Way Railway, by Ko Yano. Translated by Michael Brase. Japan & Stuff Press, 2010, 141 pp., $13 (paper).

The surprising thing about Ko Yano's biography of Kenji Miyazawa is not that he's done it in the form of a comic book, but rather that this manga biography appears to be the only book-length life of Miyazawa available in English.

The lack of a substantial non-manga biography of a writer who occupies an important place in the Japanese literary firmament is startling when one considers that there are at least two English-language biographies of Yukio Mishima, a writer much less read, and certainly much less loved, by his countrymen. It's as if there were two biographies of Hubert Selby, Jr. bookstores, but none of Robert Frost.

True, Miyazawa's end was not as dramatic as Mishima's, but their lives seem to have been driven by a similar passion, a zealous desire to know what it would be to live a good life, and to put that knowledge to practical use. Miyazawa's active efforts to live an upright life ensured that his 37 years were full. He was, in his short span (1896-1933), a devout Buddhist, an ardent vegetarian, a gifted teacher, a progressive agronomist, a rural organizer, a poet of note and — this is what he is most loved and remembered for now — a writer of children's stories that have come to be an integral part of growing up Japanese.

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that an author best known for his children's stories is commemorated in a form — picture book — associated with children. Indeed, Yano's biography will call to mind those life stories of great men and women that one might, as a fledgling reader, have borrowed from an elementary school library. These accounts typically give us a broad outline of the subject's life enlivened with anecdotes, and this is exactly Yano's strategy. That several of the anecdotes Yano retails have to do with his subject's childhood and seem to be included to demonstrate that, for all his future eccentricity, Miyazawa was a normal kid, not above stealing melons or even a bit of petty arson, suggests that this book, which appeared in Japanese in 1993, may have been aimed at younger readers.

Several of the anecdotes Yano includes highlight Miyazawa's moral qualities, and the author takes pains to be sure readers don't miss their point. After Miyazawa has stopped a fight (and looks, in Yano's rendering, rather pleased with himself for having done so) we find, for example, floating in the upper left-hand corner of a frame, "Kenji believed in nonviolence." The simplicity of such analyses can be frustrating, but the dissatisfaction we feel is actually a marker of Yano's partial success.

In convincing us that Miyazawa is not only praiseworthy, but also fascinating, he makes us want to know more. Finishing his book, for example, we will crave a full account of Miyazawa's work, both as an agronomist and as a writer. We will wish for more detailed view of the time and place in which Miyazawa lived, and finally, we will want to know what accounts for the popularity of his work — self- or unpublished during his lifetime — today.

Having seen in recent years how much can be done in comic books, one hesitates to say that to expect such comprehensiveness in a manga is unreasonable. It is, however, asking a lot, and though Yano's biography has its limitations, it is a useful introduction, containing, as it does, all the essential moments of Miyazawa's short life.

We see his discovery of the Lotus Sutra and his defection from the Jodo Shinshu sect to the Nichiren sect. This move led to tension with his father, whose business practices — he ran a successful pawnshop — Miyazawa also deplored. "Whenever I go near you, I feel a spirit of rebellion well up within me," Miyazawa wrote to his father, a statement that suggests the extent to which this relationship defined him. That Yano can boil their doctrinal differences down to one frame in which a stern-looking Kenji says, "Father, I believe in the Lotus Sutra," and his equally stern father replies, "But the Miyazawa family has always believed in Jodo Shinshu," is, depending on what one wants from a biography (manga or otherwise), either admirably simple or overly simplistic.

The drawings, too, are simple. The bodies of Yano's characters tend to be wooden, but they are saved from lifelessness by the vividness of their facial expressions. The one graphic idea that Yano has that will make readers sit up is his inclusion of period photographs among the frames of his comic. Unfortunately, the reproductions are of such poor quality that their potential effectiveness is lost.

This is not a perfect biography. It is, however — there is no competition — essential.



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