Just So Happens
In the debut graphic novel of Fumio Obata Just So Happens, Japanese transplant Yumiko has made the city of London her home for the last several years while working at a design firm. As she walks to work, she monologues about preferring the “noise, chaos, busyness, energy, and openness…” , and in being immersed in a place crammed with different lives “with different roots and cultures.” To emphasize her point, Obata (he is also a Japanese transplant living in Great Britain) pulls back to reveal a bird’s eye view of Yumiko surrounded by London’s varied denizens. Yumiko exultantly proclaims “And somehow I managed to create my own little space too.” This is the familiar claim of any immigrant who has done good. But there’s a price to pay for her successful assimilation. Whenever she spots her compatriots on those crowded streets, Yumiko subconsciously recoils from their presence. It takes her boyfriend innocently pointing this out for Yumiko to notice, and she becomes flustered at her own behavior. Soon enough, Yumiko is forced to confront her discomfort when a sudden death in the family forces her to return to her home country in this elegant and understated story about how hybrid cultural identity functions within a globalized framework.
These themes have been tackled before by Adrian Tomine and Gene Luen Yang. But there’s less interest in how racial discrimination divides mainstream society from immigrant communities which looms large with Obata’s American counterparts. Neither does he explore the politics of escaping from the repression of the old world found in Marjane Satrapi. Obata eschews those stark binaries. What is going on in his story is much more mundane and personal. At first glance, Yumiko has very little in the way of defining characteristics. Her ability to blend into her environment has made her fairly unremarkable. But as she performs her duties during the funeral service, her experience of reverse culture shock leads to some very subtle changes over the course of the book. She looks on with dismay at the many petty details of the ceremony she has to deal with, initially rejects the customs of a culture now alien to her, only to later reassess how her relationship with her separated parents contributed to her decision to study, then later work abroad. In the end, there are no overt changes or melodramatic conflicts. Just a quiet rapprochement with the country and family Yumiko had long believed she had long outgrown. In its interiority, JSH possesses a meditative autobiographical quality.
If the story sounds a little too thin, much of its emotional impact comes from the wonderful art which combines European-style illustration with Japanese aesthetics and subject matter. Obata’s meticulous ink lines are overlaid with luminous watercolor washes to produce an impressionistic effect. Once the story moves to Japan, the results are almost magical. The setting is rendered with a quiet dreamlike quality, particularly the abstract-looking mountainous landscapes. As much as Yumiko feels disconnected from her surroundings, it’s virtually impossible not to feel a little captivated by the country’s natural and architectural beauty. Obata does like to regularly pull away from his characters and view them from overhead. This transforms the ordinary urban settings they inhabit into a strange floating world.
Given that much of the story takes place inside Yumiko’s head, the most important character after her, not to mention its most prominent visual motif, is a masked Noh theater performer whose act she once witnessed during a summer festival. Drawn to the performer’s ability to balance stillness and dynamism, fierceness and control, Yumiko is haunted by its ghost when she returns to Japan. Her own detached sorrow during the funeral becomes mirrored by the anonymity of the performer’s mask, as well the slow, mournful and ambiguous gestures. The theater's restrained beauty and codified movements exquisitely captured by Obata are an expression of a search for a transcendental realm which subsumes the individual ego. As she struggles to separate her own desires from the conflicting advice offered by her mother and father on how to live her life, the performer invades her space, and she intermittently enters into the spiritual plane where she comes face-to-face with not just the performer, but her own previously unacknowledged emotional turmoil. These are the most intense scenes within the book, and Obata’s otherwise cool palette becomes warmer, harsher and more vivid.
And afterwards, Obata offers no grand theories or sweeping statements addressing the turmoil experienced by many transplants arising from their liminal status. Only simple observations perhaps drawn from his own life. These are lessons he finds best explored through the eclectic language of a visual artist.