Monday, May 30, 2011
Thursday, May 26, 2011
I will defend you/from all the darkness/this is the truth of my heart…
Truly strong female protagonists can be hard to come by. Too often, when an author is trying to write a strong woman, they end up writing a male character and giving her a female name. No matter what feminists and political correctness would have you believe, women do tend to think and act differently then men in the same situation. Now, whether it’s genetic, or cultural, or whatever the reason behind it, it has to be figured in when writing the character. This is done with amazing clarity and accuracy in Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi.
Balsa is a woman who has had a hard life. Just around 30 years old, she’s the daughter of the personal physician of a king. When the king was assassinated, both of their lives became in serious jeopardy. He sent his only daughter, Balsa, away in the care of his best friend and former bodyguard to the emperor, Jiguro. Balsa was acutely aware of the sacrifices that were made to keep her alive, and watched as her protector had to kill the 8 soldiers and former friends that were sent after them.
Years later, after her 7th assignment as a bodyguard, she crosses a bridge, going the opposite way as a royal procession. Something spooks the horses, and she watches as a carriage falls into the fast-moving water below. Without thinking, she jumps in, and pulls out the young Prince Chagum. She’s then “invited” back to the palace, where the real story begins.
During the night, Chagum’s mother explains that what occurred on the brigde was no accident. Price Chagum has a water spirit within him, and it is for this reason that people believe he must be killed. Chagum’s mother beseeches Balsa to take him away. Balsa reluctantly accepts, since there really isn’t much option to do otherwise, and a fire is set to fake the death of Chagum and give them enough time to get out of the area.
What comes next is a mystical adventure story learning what exactly is within Chagum, and how to keep it from killing him, while also letting it complete its reason for existing. Along the way, we get to experience several fascinating points of view and intertwining stories. We meet Tanda, the healer and childhood friend of Balsa, to whom she always returns to get patched up, and who may wish Balsa would come back for good and start a home. We meet Toya and Saya, two street urchins who Balsa saved once, and will do anything for her. We also meet Torogai, a shaman who knows quite a lot about the spirit world, and perhaps a bit about what’s going on with Chagum as well.
We also get to know Chagum. Through the story, he goes from an extremely sheltered boy who can’t walk for more than a few hours without Balsa needing to carry him, to becoming a fairly normal, working class boy who chops wood, learns to fight from Balsa, and can take basic care of himself. Besides the fact that he has a mystical ‘egg’ inside him that wants to hatch into a water spirit, and most of the kingdom is looking to kill him.
The story has enough action, along with a touch of the mystical, to keep even the most reluctant reader’s attention. What sets this book apart, and raises Nahoko Uehasi to a top tier author, though, is how well she understands her characters. Whether she’s writing the thoughts of a young boy taken completely out of his element, a young woman trying to make right the hardships undertaken in her name, or the man left behind over and over by the strong women he loves, she transitions from voice to voice beautifully and weaves a story that resonates as true to the reader.
Moribito is really a special story. No matter the medium, it shows how real people think, and how they make decisions. Even when there is no easy path, or no real right path at all.
Highs: Pacing; motivation and inner dialog of characters
Lows: In the middle, all the different stories could be hard to keep straight before they meet up again in the end
Verdict: Absolutely worthwhile for readers of any age
Further Reading: Moribitio II: Guardian of the Darkness, Ender’s Game
Monday, May 23, 2011
Mental illness is still a seldom talked about topic in Japan. Conformity and submission to the will of the group is so ingrained in Japanese culture that there are literally thousands of young men called 'hikikomori' who have withdrawn completely from society. They generally live with their parents, hidden away in their rooms, not coming out for weeks, or even years, at a time.
But what happens when one is simply incapable of understanding society's rules at all? A growing segment of the world's population has autism, but it's still a very poorly understood disorder. Even the West, which has for years allowed more variance in social interaction, has a hard time accepting people with autism spectrum disorders. When it collides with a culture that has such strict, formal manners governing interaction, the general population is going to have an even harder time coping.
The graphic novel With the Light by Keiko Tobe is a groundbreaking story in some respects. The story itself is a work of fiction, though the situations within have been taken from the lives of many autistic families. Mental health and disabilities are not addressed as openly in Japan as elsewhere, and most of the general public consider odd behavior in children to be solely the fault of the parents, especially the mother.
This is the world in which With the Light Volume 1 takes place, and into which Hikaru Azuma is born. Unlike with many other children with autism, Hikaru's symptoms began in infancy. His mother, Sachiko Azuma, at first believed that Hikaru was simply a very unaffectionate child who wouldn't tolerate loud noises or cuddles from his parents. His lack of progress with language or simple developmental milestones was simply attributed to bad parenting, especially on the part of his mother. When she eventually took him to the child welfare center, his lack of response to loud noises was initially blamed on deafness, even though his mother knew he responded to sounds at home.
Later, Sachiko does find the help she needs, in the form of daycare workers and teachers that really try to work with her and Hikaru. We get to see some of the techniques that teachers and parents use to get concepts across to those with autism, including picture cards and set written schedules. It's also interesting how characters suggest that people interact with those with autism 'as in they were foreigners,' by writing things down simply and using gestures.
Unfortunately, good psychology information does not an interesting story make. Sadly, Sachiko is actually not a very sympathetic character, so while we're rooting for Hikaru, it's hard to get too involved with the relationship turmoil Sachiko goes through with her husband. It also seems a bit irresponsible and selfish to have a second child with Hikaru so young and still unsettled in a proper elementary school.
Because this was originally serialized, we get explanations over and over again of the basics of Hikaru's disorder and the quirks he and others have. While this is necessary in a situation where the author might be gaining new readers with each issue, it gets tiresome in graphic novel form.
All in all, though, With the Light Volume 1 is a fascinating look into special education, family dynamics, and mental disorders in Japanese society.
Highs: Watching Hikaru hit milestones that he might not have gotten to without the help of his support group
Lows: Endless repeating from Sachiko about Hikaru's difficulties to both staff and the public
Verdict: An interesting read, especially for someone with little psychology background
Further Reading: Bunny Drop Volume 1