Auto Ads by Adsense

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Review: Himawari House

 Himawari House showed up in one of the "best comics of the year" lists and while it was labelled an "indie comic", it sounded interesting, so I checked it out of the library. Indie usually means black and white, bad art, and is to interesting reading what "literary fiction" is to actually good fiction. (For instance, I could never get into Love and Rockets) But Harmony Becker's work was compelling, interesting, and very readable from the get-go: I finished it in a couple of days, and never felt like it was a slog.

Right from the start, the book introduced a new story technique that I'd never seen before, and can only be pulled off by a true multi-lingual artist/writer. The word balloons are in 3 languages (though never all 3 in the same balloon): English, Japanese, and Korean. That's because characters in the book speak a combination of those languages. The conceit is that when a native speaker in a non-English language speaks too fast, the English translation is blurred out, struck through, or deliberately obscured, giving you the same bewildered feeling you get when someone in Japan thinks you're Japanese, and opens up her language stream at you full bore. It is an innovative technique, and it conveys exactly what the author has in mind. Since I can read a smattering of Japanese, I spot-checked many of the word balloons and to the best of my ability, all her Japanese was accurate, and so I assume that her Korean is good as well.

The book revolves around 3 women, Nao (a Japanese American) who moves to Japan for a gap year to learn Japanese better. She ends up in the shared eponymous house, and meets Hyejung (from Korea) and Tina (from Singapore), and the 3 become friends as they go to language school together and spend a year in Japan, learning about each other, and puzzling the men that they share the house with. Becker depicts Singlish accurately, including the code-switching that happens when a Singaporean speaks with someone she knows wouldn't understand the colloquialisms inherent in that dialect of English. Each chapter features a certain slice of life drama, giving you the background behind one of the characters. One of the most endearing pages of the comic has the 3 women saying to themselves that they weren't very good Asians, so they couldn't stay in their home countries, yet picked one of the most xenophobic countries in Asia to move to:

I've never lived in Japan long term, and especially not as an Asian person (many white people have lived in Japan and loved it of course), so I can't speak to the veracity of Becker's depictions, but everything in the book rings true, and none of it is cliched, and none of the events feel like invented drama.

My criticisms of the book? Well, there's a bit of the cliched Asian American "I'm neither Japanese or American" vibe. But it's not written in a "woe-is-me" self-pitying fashion. The author-stand-in character is quite privileged (all the characters are) and the drama consists entirely of first-world problems. The plot: there's no plot. It's a series of slice of life vignettes, linked together by common characters and quite touching. That's not really a criticism. Many TV sitcoms do the same. But I do like a little bit more plot in my books so this is just my personal taste.

In case you can't figure it out, I loved this book. I think you should read it. Even if you don't like the usual Asian American genre, I think you'll like this one. It's not self-centered, and it's multi-cultural in a way that's unique and truthful. It's the best comic I've read in years. Highly recommended.

No comments: