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The Nao Of Brown h/c

The Nao Of Brown h/c The Nao Of Brown h/c The Nao Of Brown h/c

The Nao Of Brown h/c back

Glyn Dillon


Page 45 Review by Stephen

“Little do they know I’m a fucking mental case.”


Exquisitely beautiful, with the softest of pencil lines and crisply lit, delicately coloured washes, this is the finest graphic novel I have read all year, and one of the best I have read in my life. Full of humanity, it is tender and compassionate and very, very funny in places. In others, it is startlingly dark.

Our young Nao is twenty-eight with an English mother who’s moved to Brighton and a drunken father who’s moved back to Japan. She’s adopted her mother’s maiden name of Brown. She’s playful, intelligent and culturally well versed. Sharply dressed, she is pretty to the point of chic, with dark hair tied up at the back, falling in a fringe across her brow with wisps curling down past her ears. She’s an artist who’s just had four setbacks: her boyfriend cheated on her, ditched her and dumped her from his publishing company, twenty-four hours after a promising relationship with an American toy company went tits up too. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, they’d gone radio-silent so Nao sent them an email to nudge them into action.

“I didn’t think I’d been rude or anything so I was quite surprised by the speedy and hostile response I got.”
“Well, in my attempt to be professional yet curt… I’d signed off with just “regards”… but the G and T are pretty close to each other on the keyboard.”

That’s Steve Meek, by the way, an old art school friend she’s bumped into in a pub. He offers her a job in his “kidult” designer vinyl toy shop where there’s a list of things they don’t sell drawn up, presumably, from everything he’s been asked if they do sell. You’d be surprised: I’ve been asked if we sell 7” singles, colanders and, on one notable occasion, guns. This being Nottingham, I was particularly polite to him. There they compare notes on their disastrous love lives – oh, the comedy of courtship! – until a washing machine repairman called Gregory pops in by mistake and Nao is immediately smitten. Dressed in denim, he’s broad, high-browed with a thick but tidily trimmed beard. To Nao he looks just like The Nothing from Japanese folklore, and she’s determined to meet him again.

“Well, I’ve not seen anything quite like that before…” he confesses, peering down the back of her washing machine. “Looks like someone hacked away at it with a carving knife.”
“Really? … We do have a mouse problem.”

Hmmm. Quickly they bond over Buddhism and Franco-Japanese animation, but you know what first dates can be like, right? Nerves? Overcompensation? A bit too much to drink?

“My Mum said you’re Japanese. Would it be fair to say… there are two types of Japanese… women? The autonomous, intrepid ‘escapee’, who makes it to the west because they weren’t cut out to live the life of the docile cliché… the repressed, suffering in silence, Milquetoasts, unable to speak up for themselv –“
“Milk toasts?”
“Exactly… Look… ‘Hello Kitty’… the archetypal Japanese female… unable to articulate. Why? For she has no mouth.”
“Yes, Hello Kitty may appear to have no mouth, but Winnie the Pooh has no pants and Action Man lacks… well, he’s unlikely to get any ‘action’. Anyway, according to Sanrio, she does have a mouth… it’s simply unseen beneath her fur. Ergo, it’s never drawn… but it does exist… in theory. And… what you fail to take into account is that Hello Kitty’s male counterpart, ‘Dear Daniel’, has no mouth… therefore negating your claim that Kitty is representative of the archetypal Japanese female and her ‘lack of voice’.”
“… Perha –“
“And if you want the official company line… they’ve said Hello Kitty appears to have no mouth because she speaks from her heart. And anyway this is not ‘Hello Kitty’… it’s ‘Lucky Lune’. …I’m not sure what the story is with her mouth…”

Brilliant. Charming. It’s all so delightful, just like Nao herself. Unfortunately ever since the very first page something has been simmering away, and not even in the background. To begin with that too struck me as funny, Nao appearing to comment on her own condition with a certain good-humoured – or at least dry – detachment as here, where she stands on a platform next to a Help Point as a train approaches. She could use a little help.

“The Underground is always… ‘challenging’. But with the jetlag kicking in, on an empty stomachh… I felt really on edge. All it takes is a little shove…
“… 9 out of 10… again.”

It is the perfect juxtaposition of words and pictures, Nao looking utterly unphased while seeing red.

But it isn’t funny at all. Nao, you see, suffers from a specific Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which is a very far cry from repeatedly washing your hands or touching each lamp post you pass. Beneath her seemingly limitless calm lurks a volcanic rage that can be triggered even during a relaxed Buddhist meditation class. And by ‘volcanic’ I mean bursts of murderous fury: violent flash-fantasies she can feel boiling up inside her, barely contained by the mantras she’s taught herself, like focussing on her mother’s unconditional love. She doesn’t trust herself around knives, scissors and especially small children, but even those she adores are at risk and gradually you begin to understand the full extent of her trauma, the fixations which consume her once a stray thought takes hold and send her into a spiral of self-recrimination and self-loathing that can paralyse her for hours.

It’s masterfully presented, and for me the key is that to begin with you don’t take her seriously – that you don’t comprehend her torture, just like those around her, oblivious to what she’s wrestling with. The only person who does understand the severity is her flatmate Tara and even she, to begin with, makes gentle jokes which Nao joins in with.

Where this all goes is what took me by surprise, and not just the once; how so many seemingly throwaway moments all tied together astounded me. Even the title is bursting with wit.

The Japanese fable, framed in black and fully inked, involving the squabbling family, the conker-headed son and The Nothing I will leave for you discover for yourselves. Like Nao herself the book is full of surprises including design elements, some of which were oh, so clever. And it is, as I’ve said, such a beautifully drawn and sublimely painted graphic novel. I love the way the light falls across Nao’s cheek in rounded triangles. Her mascara is immaculately applied – except when she cries with laughter. Yet it’s her bright red lips which amused me the most: her fixed grin of awkward apology, the pulled-in-tight smile of “I goofed”, and the bright delight of open-mouthed, exhilarated success.

There’s also so much culture here I hadn’t stumbled upon before, or at least in such depth, and the Buddhism in particular intrigued me. Nao visits the West London Buddhist Centre quite regularly, with much affection for Ray in particular who teaches more than just art.

“Enso is just the Japanese word for circle. It’s not a calligraphy character, it’s a zen symbol, symbolising enlightenment, the universe… the void… it’s an expression of the ‘moment’. So, once it’s done, that’s it, there’s no tidying it up or changing it.”

Painted with a single sweep of the brush, it can also look remarkably like a washing machine window in full spin. Nao has filled a whole wall with washing-machine Endos at home. It’s another of her fixations. She’s permanently set on the same cycle, round and round and round.

Something’s got to give.