Page 45 Review by Stephen
If it were at all possible, would you go back in time with your current critical faculties and relive your life from the age of fourteen?
If so, what would you change - if anything at all - and what would you learn that eluded your former fourteen-year-old mind?
This is a graphic novel which may make you reflect upon your past, on your present, and perhaps on your future. With crystal clear lines of breath-taking beauty and grey-tone shadows which denote so much sunlight, it's my favourite work so far from the creator of GUARDIANS OF THE LOUVRE, collecting the two former softcovers, the first of which we made Page 45's Comicbook Of The Month.
It is executed with all the dignity, quiet calm and accomplished craftsmanship that made THE WALKING MAN such a transporting experience, and sees a forty-something businessman, tired and hung-over, boarding the wrong train by mistake. It takes him back to the town he grew up in. Rather than fret, he takes advantage of the happenstance to stroll through the streets of his childhood. They've changed so considerably that they're barely recognisable now, but when he reaches the graveyard under the verdant hillside where his mother lies buried, he stops to meditate by her headstone:
"What were my mother's thoughts when she passed away?
"My father suddenly went missing when I was in eighth grade. I have no clear idea why my father decided to leave. Even now, whereabouts still unknown, I don't know what's happened to him... I don't even know if he's alive or dead! I don't know the pain she might have felt inside, but Mom passed away without ever saying a hateful word about my father.
"I asked my mother once again. 'Were you happy?'"
There's a shift in his shadow as the sun shines down from above, and a shift in his weight so that he loses his balance. A butterfly flits by. He's wearing his old school uniform.
Hiroshi Nakahara is fourteen years old again. His mother's alive, and his father's still there with no sign at all of significant strife. So why did his father suddenly disappear, and can Nakahara do anything to prevent it?
Originally published in Japan in 1998, the time taken to translate it gave Alex Robinson's similarly themed TOO COOL TO BE FORGOTTEN the chance to emerge onto our shelves first. Whatever their similarities, stylistically they're very different beasts: Taniguchi has an exceptionally fine, precise yet surprisingly soft and sympathetic line whereby even interiors are spacious and full of window light, whilst his landscapes are a loving tribute to the beauty of nature, the grass dappled in sunshine and shadow, the leaves painstaking rendered in gentle folds above.
One can't help but fall in love with so many of his cast, either. Whether wide-eyed in wonder or deep in reflection, harbouring a melancholy kept to himself, Nakahara is drawn by Taniguchi in perfect sympathy with his inner monologue. For although he delights in a confidence around girls he never had as a child, although he rejoices in a rejuvenated athleticism and overindulges in an alcohol binge his younger body can't cope with, there are school friends whose funerals he's already attended who are chatting to him now without a care in the world, and he can't help but look at his mother and father with a different eye to a child's.
For he knows his father will leave his mother soon, just as his own family in the present are wondering what's happened to their husband and father...
It's a work that can't help but catalyse self-reflection. How would you cope in the same situation? Who would believe you if you told them the truth? How soon would one simple act cause a domino effect leading you down a completely different road to that trodden before? And how come you can't just take a boy or a girl out to dinner any longer?!
Taniguchi's best works are more about contemplation and a search for truth or at least peace of mind than anything else, and usually in the middle of the most beautifully lit countryside you will ever encounter. There's also an emphasis on respect and gratitude - the touching and impressive Japanese courtesy of not wanting to put anyone else out (it is not about manners; it is all about genuine good will) - and it's evoked well here as Hiroshi's grandmother continues to explain his father's particular circumstances following his experience in World War II, and his mother struggles with her understanding of the debt she owes her second husband, her knowledge of what he has sacrificed for her, yet her need for his presence.
Meanwhile Hiroshi takes the girl he'd never have had to courage to talk to the first time round to the seaside where he relishes the freedom and sensations of being fourteen again, but without the same insecurities.