Review, Jirō Taniguchi memorial edition: Tomoji

One of the greatest mangaka of all time passed away five years ago. Today we’re going to look at another of his late works, created after Furari and before The Millennium Forest.

Tomoji (とも路; German title: Ihr Name war Tomoji)
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Authors: Miwako Ogihara & Jirō Taniguchi (writers), Jirō Taniguchi (artist)
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Futabasha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2012)
Number of volumes: 1

Pages: 166
Price: € 17
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/softcover/ihr-name-war-tomoji/978-3-551-76104-0 (German); https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=119718
ISBN: 978-3-551-76104-0

A very short summary of this story would be that it tells the life of Tomoji Uchida (1912-1967), who, together with her husband Fumiaki Itō, founded a Buddhist sect. But that would be misleading. Instead of a hagiography, Taniguchi (together with co-writer Ogihara) does what he is best at: telling a story of ordinary people living ordinary lives. He is able to pull this off by having the story end in 1932, after Tomoji had married Fumiaki but before they became religious leaders.

p. 60 from the French edition

What makes this story interesting nevertheless is that it’s also a portrait of Taishō and early Shōwa era Japan. We see Tomoji as a young girl in the countryside of Yamanashi Prefecture, helping out at her family’s shop, working in the rice paddy, going to school, and later going to town to attend a sewing school. Some dramatic events in Tomoji’s life are also shown – e.g. her father’s death, or how her mother abandons the family – but the only historic one is the Great Kantō earthquake in 1923, which is mainly depicted from Fumiaki’s perspective in Tokyo.

This is actually one of the more unusual aspects of the manga: Tomoji and Fumiaki don’t meet until 1932, but the perspective shifts several times from her to him, and it is strongly implied that they are somehow destined to be together. For instance, on p. 111, Fumiaki in Tokyo looks out of the window; the next panel shows a bird of prey in the sky; the one after that shows Tomoji looking up from her work in the rice paddy near her faraway home village – as if they were both watching the same bird – and then on the next page the sequence is reversed until in the last panel we’re with Fumiaki in Tokyo again. The caption on the page after that reads: “Fumiaki was 18 years old, Tomoji 12. Both were looking at the same sky, but some more years would pass before they met.”

With the knowledge of how Tomoji’s life story continues after the end of the manga, one is tempted to look for other hints in the story, apart from her fateful meeting with Fumiaki, as to how and why she became a religious leader. And indeed there are many little episodes which one can read as examples of young Tomoji’s kindness, compassion, humility, studiousness, piety and spirituality, all of which are probably appropriate prerequisites for a future temple founder. That being said, Tomoji remains a charmingly ‘ordinary’ slice-of-life manga.

colour page from the French edition

Art-wise, Taniguchi is once more at the top of his game, which shows particularly in the many landscape panels and the endless variations of the page layout. Thankfully, the German edition also includes all the watercoloured pages (22 including chapter title images) in colour, and I have already sung Taniguchi’s praises as a watercolour painter before. Then again, the colour pages are probably German publisher Carlsen’s reason to charge the hefty price of € 0.10 per page for this book.

If Tomoji can be considered required reading for Taniguchi enthusiasts, it’s because it bridges two gaps in his oeuvre: as some people have pointed out, it is one of only two of his manga with a female protagonist (the other being Sensei no kaban from 2008, adapted from Hiromi Kawakami’s novel). And, chronologically, Tomoji is another piece in the puzzle that is Taniguchi’s manga history of Japan, as it were, as the time period that it covers fits nicely between the Meiji-era Bocchan no jidai (1987) and Harukana machi e / A Distant Neighborhood (1998), small parts of which are set in WWII.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○



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