It took me a long time to get around to reading Tonoharu: Part One, Lars Martinson’s graphic novel about a young American who gets a job as an English teaching assistant in a small Japanese town. I’m so glad I did, though, because its incredibly good. It reads like an autobiography. Martinson actually did work in Japan as an English teacher, so I’m sure parts of the story are based on his experiences.
Published in 2008, and a winner of the prestigious Xeric Award, Tonoharu is a story of isolation, frustration, and mystery, with just the right amount of black humor to keep it from being depressing. Dan Wells, the main character, is a recent college graduate who gets a job at a junior high school in the town of Tonoharu. The teachers and staff at the school are mostly standoffish, and because his contract requires him to stay on campus all day even when he has nothing to do, the resulting boredom combined with the language and cultural barrier are at times almost unbearable. The few foreigners that Dan gets to know are too weird to connect with in a meaningful way. And an American girl he meets and becomes smitten with seems to want to have as little to do with him as possible.
As time goes on, Dan establishes something of a social network (including an affair with a female teacher at his school who visits his apartment to have sex with him), and he is introduced to a baffling family of seemingly wealthy Europeans living in an old Buddhist temple.
This book is just the first part in a series of forthcoming graphic novels about Tonoharu. Martinson kindly sent me an uncorrected proof of Tonoharu: Part Two, which I devoured immediately. It’s coming out in December. He told me he’s half way finished with the third book. It’s slow going, because of the exquisite cross hatching he uses, but the overall effect is stunning.
I can’t recommend Tonoharu highly enough.
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