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Back Again

One of the manga artists I really like is Tetsuya Toyoda. To my knowledge, he isn’t that prolific (since I’ve only read two of his works), but based on what I’ve seen, his work just has that special touch of tone and dramatic flow that floats my boat. His art itself isn’t spectacularly detailed or amazingly rendered, nor do I think he’s got incredible technical skill, yet the way he draws people is appealing and very personal. Toyoda’s art has this specific look that’s distinctly his, in the sense that you could tell at a glance it was he who drew the picture, no matter how random it may be. And he’s also got a nicely sensitive approach to character emotion and dramatic flow, something that I’ve noticed in some of the excellent dramatic anime I’ve seen. Not too overblown or over-acted, but seamlessly woven in and convincing. He leavens it with some quick yet subtle specks of fun humor as well, which makes for a surprisingly well-rounded and natural reading. Essentially he could be writing an emotional story, but he generously adds in light stuff throughout that makes the flow and content feel utterly natural and even realistic.


So why am I going to such lengths talking about the man? Well, not too long ago, I stumbled upon a one-shot of his (I assume it was his latest work) which inspired me enough to look through one of his past series I remember liking a lot, which then in turn inspired me enough to gather my thoughts about him and his work and try to write them out here. Inspiration that may have festered in my head for days too long, but inspiration nonetheless. One thing I’d also like to mention in light of all this is that I actually quit reading manga for a few months now, and it was this particular one-shot that made me get back into the habit at least a little. Such was the power of name-value. Name-dropping, as ludicrous as it is most of the time, actually does serve some small purpose.

The one-shot, Mr. Bojangles, is a typical Toyoda story, in that shares most of the aspects that so endeared his work to me, and that it also has this element in common with his past major work: the private detective. He seems to have this predilection towards using detectives in his work (though this is only an assumption). Not that I’m complaining. In fact, it makes for quite interesting reading. The story tells of a certain private eye hired by a soon-to-be-married young woman to search for an eccentric old man she knew when she was younger. So the detective goes around town and does his job–asking around for old acquaintances, digging up for clues in the old man’s past–and the manga ends with the revelation of the old man’s fate in a poignant twist. Not the most original story in the world, all things considered, but it is interesting and does offer glimpses into the approach of the artist in terms of his work.

What I liked most about the manga is that it’s really not all that different from the past Toyoda manga I’ve read, which was Undercurrent. It pleased me to know that he hasn’t drastically shifted gears regarding his choice of content, his story elements and his style of drama, even after the seven-year gap between them (2004 – present). It’s not that I’m averse to change or evolution in an artist or whatever. I’m just saying that it was nice seeing that the basic hallmarks of Tetsuya Toyoda the manga artist hasn’t been removed, shafted, or altered. Though I would still appreciate it if he had built on these or improved on them, even just a little. And I would also imagine myself being completely shocked to find out if he had strayed from these things, after all this time. If the change hadn’t been done well, I wouldn’t have been too pleased.

Drama this time doesn’t take much of the fore, as opposed to Undercurrent, except it’s taken to the back seat and is smartly written in at key parts of the story, most especially the ending. You still get the sense of the artist’s slow-paced and low-key attitude while reading, but he doesn’t take you through heavy emotional detours or roller-coasters. You ask yourself why the soon-to-be-married young woman would want to see the kindly old man again after all the intervening years, and why she would even think of him as an important part of her life, as unrelated as they are. And there’s also this curiosity about what kind of person the old man could have been, what kind of life he had lived. All this is presented in a leisurely pace, like a slow walk through an old neighborhood. There’s also some bits of quick humor here and there which makes it amusing and quirky, all in an unobtrusive and natural way.

I know I may heap all this praise on the manga, but it’s not perfection–nor is it even that great. The limited format of the one-shot may have had more than a hand in this, so it’s completely understandable, but Bojangles can get a little too wordy and a little too reliant on dialogue. It moves too quickly, and the developments are all simply narrated to us by the characters, as opposed to actually depicting the events in question. Of course, the approach of the manga is valid, too, but I just felt it moved a little too mechanically, too by-the-book, and too fast,  too fast at least for this type of story (well, what can you do in only 25 pages? It can’t be helped, I guess). The story could have used some breathing room every once in a while, to give it ample space to sink in the reader. But despite all that, it remains an enjoyable piece and is a valid example of Toyoda at work.

Now, when he’s at his best, Toyoda can create an utterly touching and moving dramatic story out of the simplest, and the most mundane elements–which is a style I admit I prefer more so than supposedly “epic” tales. Well, I find that’s where the guy exactly was in Undercurrent. He produces this greatly emotional manga with generous helpings of character complexity and dramatic heft all in a span of a single volume, eleven chapters, to be precise. I don’t know that many other manga artists who can do such an impressive job, and to do it so convincingly, in fact. And in such a short time, too. Toyoda gets in, does what he’s supposed to do, and gets out without making too much noise.

I’ve just reread this major series of his a few days after Bojangles, and I admit being wary about the whole thing. I was worried that maybe I only liked the manga the first time I read it and that I would start to find things to nit-pick about when I revisited it, but to my surprise, I still reacted much in the same way even though I already knew what was going to happen. It still had this great effect at drawing me in through the spareness of its story and the simplicity of its humor. Slow-paced, low-key realistic drama that doesn’t grow too old and is plainly believable and natural. There are quirky characters in here, still, but even they seem like believable and easy-going people, much like a friendly neighbor you talk to from time to time (I forgot to mention this, but the two manga I’ve talked about here also share another thing: the eccentric old men). Simply put, I loved it just as much as I did the first time I read it.

The story is simple enough. It tells of a housewife, an owner of a small bathhouse, coming to grips with the loss of her husband who’d run out on her some time before and the pain of her troubled past visiting her in her dreams. Reading it like this, it seems not too far removed from Mr. Bojangles, except of course the obviously different trappings, characters, and setting. This kind of set-up seems to be a common thread linking these two stories together, which could speak of the artist’s creative inclinations, and a running factor he just likes to put in his work. Undercurrent also has a detective, like I said up top, who’s a fairly eccentric character. He’s one of the sources of levity and humor in the manga, and he also comes across as insightful despite his goofy nature. The two detectives in the respective stories also look considerably alike. Fancy that.

This time, it’s now the dramatic side of things that takes center stage. Toyoda slowly but surely reveals aspects of the main characters’ respective pasts, establishes the connections between them, and explores the layered themes and complex feelings of the characters as the story plays out. We see a woman attempting to make heads or tails of his husband’s abrupt disappearance, and eventually an event of her past that has tormented her ever since it happened. Then we also see how she reacts to this new person arriving in her life, and how it impacts her day-to-day life at the bathhouse. The new man himself has issues of his own, but he hides it in a glum, aloof, almost antisocial exterior. Their interactions together are at times lighthearted, and at others emotional.

All this Toyoda does in his own sensitively slow and appealingly smooth way. He doesn’t make the characters jump through hoops to make a dramatic point or to squeeze out the necessary emotions from people. Quite a few other stories with the same set-ups would try to make a show of itself, inundating people with an all-too obvious ploy at generating reactions that are offensively manipulative. In here, that’s not the case. Having a loved one leave you without saying a single word is of course crushing and depressing, and we see its effects on our main character, albeit not too outwardly, but more introspectively. It’s this inward-looking approach to tension that I liked about the manga. You sense that indeed there’s a heavy problem bothering her, but you don’t see her moaning or groaning about it. Instead she tries to go about her normal life as usual. In a way that gives her a more human personality, more convincing in its portrayal and more believable.

The dramatic flow is on the whole smooth and tidy. Things do move forward in their own pace, following a soft and steady rhythm, eventually reaching its logical conclusion at the very end. Interspersed within the main conflict are some tangential, yet important events that move the plot few steps forward in a smooth, interesting manner. The resolution is ambiguous, but satisfying, coming off a twist that’s expertly placed and smartly exposed. Aside from those, the manga doesn’t really try to drop some heavily bombastic or tear-jerking moments. Rather it chooses to evoke drama from the hushed scenes of emotional distress, where you see the characters try to deal with their reactions. They’re poignant and meaningful scenes of real weight. Like in the scene in the lake in the woods, or in the conversation between the wife and her estranged husband at the end.

The dialogue is still quite heavy but not in the overbearing way as the one-shot Bojangles. They have their pauses just long enough to give the story space to breathe. It would have harmed the manga had things moved even a little too fast. Thankfully, Toyoda knows when to lay the words on thick and when to ease up and let the specific moments do the talking. To lighten the overall mood of the manga, there’s also a considerable dose of jokes and comedy, brought about mainly by the eccentric old man and the goofy detective. I find them interesting and entertaining to watch, from the old man “patrolling” the bathhouse laundry to the detective singing karaoke and letting the main character run around the amusement park. They’re necessary characters in that their presence prevents the manga from being too oppressive and heavy in its mood and atmosphere. If it had just been a heavy drama straight-through, the manga wouldn’t be half as good.

The estranged husband himself is an interestingly layered character, though I found him a bit too similar with the old man character in Bojangles. These kinds of people also seem to be part of Toyoda’s normal style of storytelling and characterization. I didn’t like him as much, as he only appears near the end, functioning mainly as a device to end the story rather than a real person, but his motivations and reasons for leaving are interesting enough to hold my attention. Same goes for the new helper in the bathhouse. I like him, but he tends to get overshadowed by the main character, which I guess is the point. His eventual connection with the housewife in terms of their past is the twist in the story, and I found it adeptly inserted and revealed.

Tetsuya Toyoda has two other works in his catalog, Coffee Time (2008) and GOGGLE (2003), but I haven’t actually read them yet. It would be interesting to see if he’s already had this mature, sensible approach to drama and character relations starting from his first published work. It’d be funny if he’d already established his own tropes of playful detectives and weird old men just when he first started out.


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