Although manga has been taken seriously as a form of literature in Japan for much longer than graphic novels have been in the West, the West has a significant head start on the autobiographical and historical comic. Maus, first published in 1986, has been taught for years in high school and college courses. More recently, Persepolis has been made into an animated movie and Pyongyang has let Guy Delisle write several other books chronicling his travels throughout contested areas throughout the world.
Manga authors, on the other hand, haven't been as much a part of this movement. One of the first I've seen translated into English is Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms.
The author Fumiyo Kono was at first hesitant to write about such a dark time in Japan's history. Although born in Hiroshima, neither she nor anyone in her family was a survivor of the bombing. After a lifetime of avoiding the topic, and at an editor's request, she finally broached the topic with these two short works.
“Town of Evening Calm” takes place just a few years after the bombs fell. Having lost most of her family, either to the bomb or to the situation surrounding it, Minami lives with her mother in a shanty in town. Her brother had been sent to the countryside during the war, and since he escaped the bombing itself, was adopted out to his aunt. Beginning as a simple slice-of-life story, it shows both the physical and emotional scars left by the bombing.
“Country of Cherry Blossoms” begins in 1987, following the daughter of Minami's brother in Tokyo. This story is more of a contemporary look at the discrimination and near-superstition surrounding anyone connected to the bombings, no matter how remote the ties.
This is an important piece on many levels. Because of the reception of these stories in Japan, it seems like these topics are simply not discussed. Part of the reason Kono wrote the stories was to bring it up for discussion among the Japanese people. There is also a bit of an undertone of anti-Americanism woven into the anti-war message. It's not mentioned, of course, that it was a Japanese attack that brought the US into World War II in the first place.
Barring that, though, it's an amazing look into a piece of Japan's history that isn't discussed, and that many would like to pretend never happened.
Highs: The simplistic art style is clean enough to not distract from the story, and shows the fragility of human life
Lows: It's impossible to completely depoliticize a story based on a wartime act, though the author gives it a try
Verdict: An important book for both the Japanese and anyone else trying to understand the Asian front of WWII
Further Reading: Pyongyang, Persepolis