Book Spotlight: Drawing from Memory – Allen Say

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Drawing from Memory recounts, in picture book/graphic novel format, Say’s journey to becoming an artist, from his childhood fascination with drawing to his apprenticeship with the mangaka Noro Shinpei and eventual transition to the US.

What I liked:

  • To date, I’ve read three other books by Say – Grandfather’s Journey, Kamishibai Man, and Tea with Milk. While I loved all three of these books and thought Say did a marvelous job writing and illustrating each one, I think Drawing from Memory best showcases the range of his skills as both an author and an artist. In what might appear to be a deceptively “simple” picture book, Say’s narrative interweaves the everyday experiences of Nihonjin during and after the war with his personal experiences as a student and apprentice. I say “interweave” rather than “uses as a backdrop” to refer to his depictions of wartime Japan because the essence of Say’s story is inextricable from its historical context. As in his other work, Say’s outstanding ability to convey nuance through his illustrations and spare writing style steals the show. さすが日本人!
  • The number and variety of images (photographs, Say’s artwork in various styles ranging from sketches to paintings, etc.) enhances and balances the text. Drawing from Memory seems to have a higher word count than Say’s other picture books (not surprising, given the nature of the story being told), but the arrangement of text and image prevents the reader from being overwhelmed.
  • Say tailors his art style according to content and meaning – for example, compare the illustrations depicting Say as a child and apprentice, to the panorama of the bay (Yokohama, I wonder?) on the page describing the US occupation of Japan, to the black-and-white drawing of the riot police. His watercolors are my favorite – the quiet aesthetics of everyday Japan, the liveliness and vitality of the people evoked by his color choices, the attention to details like shop signs – but I also loved seeing the many other styles he is capable of working in.
  • Significant people in Say’s life – Noro-sensei, Tokida, Orito-san, his mother – are presented in brief but vivid snapshots. I especially love the intimate illustrations of Say working in Noro-sensei’s studio and drawing with Orito-san in the art room. These illustrations, juxtaposed with actual photographs of the people involved, infuse the work with a feeling of nostalgia. As the title itself indicates, this book is a collection of Say’s memories, pieced together from true events and imagination. At times, I felt a bit intrusive, as if I was leafing through Say’s family album, and I had to remind myself Say would not have included anything he wished to keep private. Looking back, I realize this feeling is yet another indicator of how successfully Say executed his, “drawing from memory.”
  • Say expertly distills long passages of time into a few images and lines of text, highlighting key moments in his life without making the story feel disjointed. For example, the time he spent studying for the Aoyama entrance exam is captured in a single illustration of him lying belly-down on his futon, his schoolbooks spread out above the pillow. Numerous versions of this image can be found in contemporary Japanese media, alongside stories, both fictional and true, of the rigors of exam preparation. Between this image and the subsequent one showing the exam results board, exists the entirety of the effort Say invested in gaining admission to Aoyama. It’s interesting to compare Say’s framing of this portion of his life to the culture of consumption around school-themed manga and anime that exists in contemporary Japan (but that’s really a discussion for another post). Long story short, I really admire Say’s talent for economy!
  • Kyushu gets a little screen (page?) time, however briefly. I always get excited when I encounter other Nikkeijin/Nihonjin with ties to Kyushu, even if they aren’t from the same area as my family. Represent!

What I learned:

  • This is the first book I’ve read focusing on how mangaka/artists trained in wartime and postwar Japan. I think it’s only the second book I’ve read about the behind-the-scenes work of mangaka, the first being バクマン.
  • I’d never heard of Noro Shinpei before reading this book. It sounds like not much of his work might be extant today, but I might poke around to see what I can find. Maybe I’ll also ask my mom if she’s familiar with him, since she grew up in postwar Japan and read a lot of manga as a kid.
  • I wasn’t expecting to learn that Say’s foundational training occurred under a mangaka, since he isn’t one now. Time to look for some Nikkeijin/Nihonjin-written work on how the history of manga intersects with the history of other art forms in Japan.
  • As readers of Tea with Milk know, Say’s mother was raised in San Francisco for a time before her parents chose to move the family to Japan, and she found a job as a department store interpreter thanks to her bilingual skills. In Drawing from Memory, Say mentions several times that after his parents separated, his mother supported herself, Say, his sister, and his grandmother on her income. I wonder what sort of work she did – I imagine her bilingual ability would have been even more useful during wartime and the postwar period. I’ve never thought much about how Nikkeijin – especially women – made a living if they were in Japan during the war, but now I’m motivated to find out!

Questions I had:

  • Where have Allen Say’s books been all my life?! No, serious question. Maybe it’s because I grew up with books and media created by Nihonjin, not Nikkeijin, but I find it incredible I haven’t come across Say before now. Fellow Nikkeijin, are you familiar with Say’s work? When and how were you introduced to it?
  • I wonder why Say chose not to become a mangaka? I hope reading his other work will offer some clues!
  • How much input did Say have on the layout of this book? The photographs, illustrations, and text seamlessly unite to form the narrative – not a single piece feels out of place. Considering Say probably provided most of the content, with the possible exception of a few of the images, I would assume he also had the final-ish say (pun unintentional) on how everything came together. Anyway, kudos to whomever was responsible! It’s a beautiful production.
  • Now that I know Say trained under a mangaka – has he ever considered creating manga? I think his background and skill set perfectly position him to execute a “first” of sorts – a manga exploring the relationships between Nikkeijin and Nihonjin (I would also love to see more Nikkeijin and Nihonjin creating other types of work around this subject, especially if it involved a transnational collaboration a la Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda for Monstress).*

Follow-up:

  • I just purchased Say’s The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice, which I understand to be the novelization of the story told in Drawing from Memory. I believe the story also continues in picture book format, so I’ll be looking for those as well.
  • Look for more fiction and nonfiction by Nikkeijin and/or Nihonjin on the history of manga, as well as the general history of Japanese art.

*Saw a recent call for an artist for a graphic novel about Japanese American incarceration, but I’m not sure if the creative team will end up being all Nikkeijin/Nihonjin. I hope so – I think Nikkeijin need to retain ownership over stories about the camps. I also saw an agent list “Japanese American internment” as an area of interest for manuscripts which – hmm. Unless the agent is specifically seeking #ownvoices work, it reads a little too much like, “here’s a trending topic, work by anyone (read: white people, outsiders) is welcome!” I’m 100% positive I don’t ever want to read anything written by a white person/non-Japanese person about JA/Nikkei incarceration.

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Book Spotlight: Kamishibai Man – Allen Say

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Kamishibai Man follows Jiichan’s recollections of performing kamishibai as he retraces his old route from village to town.

What I liked:

  • Say’s illustrations are, as always, delightful. I especially like the opening scene showing Jiichan and Baachan in their home, and the scenes where Jiichan is wheeling his bicycle through town. Say’s attention to detail in depicting the signage for different types of shops and eateries made me so nostalgic for Japan – and I also wonder if he has much interest in 書道 or other types of writing/lettering. The opening illustration reminds me of the homes depicted in the children’s books my mother read to me before I learned to read on my own. Even now, my immediate visual association with the idea of a Japanese home is an image like this one.* The illustration at the end of the book, depicting Jiichan and Baachan sitting at the dinner table, really reminds me of the scene in one of my favorite childhood books, かさじぞう, where they have what looks like a dinner of hot water and 沢庵 (たくあん). I tried to copy that meal once and discovered it wasn’t very filling. 懐かしい!
  • I think we had a children’s book about kamishibai once, but I don’t know if my parents still have it. It wasn’t one we read a lot and I remember thinking it was rather boring because the pictures were black and white. Reading Kamishibai Man made me remember the existence of this book – time to see if my sister can find it.
  • Say’s use of Jiichan read to me as the perfect balance of specific and general. In not naming Jiichan, Say allows him to stand in for the many kamishibai performers whose life stories have been erased or ignored by subsequent historical developments. The dignity with which Say depicts Jiichan – his love for kamishibai, his nostalgia for the Japan of his youth, his perseverance and eventual reconnection to his old listeners – is an homage to kamishibai and its practitioners. At the same time, choosing to refer to him as Jiichan feels like an intimate choice to me because of the situations in which we (Japanese speakers) use Jiichan. I love how Say’s language choices enhance the story’s treatment of changes in Japanese society, particularly with regard to the shift from small-scale, familial activities like kamishibai in villages to more impartial mass media like television in developing cities.
  • Baachan’s homemade candies! I have to ask my mom about this – I think it’s something I’m too far removed from generationally and geographically, though I do remember my mom and maybe some of my aunts making a syrupy, stringy sugar candy on the stove. 水飴かな? I wonder if this is the candy on a stick that Jiichan gives out.

What I learned:

  • Nikkei authors have written about kamishibai in fiction! So far, this is the only example I’ve seen, but I hope to find more.

Questions I had:

  • Why did Say decide to write a book about kamishibai? I’ve made many assumptions and interpretations of his motives above, but these are all guesses. It would be nice to hear about the origins of the book in the author’s own words.

Follow-up:

  • The scholar’s note at the end of the book (not by Say) presents kamishibai as a predecessor to manga. Since I’m currently on something of a manga-reading kick, I guess it’s time to read up on the histories of both to see where and how they intersect. I hope I can find some Nikkei/Japanese sources!

*On a side note, I see Say worked on an English version of 三年寝太郎 (さんねんねたろう), written by someone else, which is interesting. I wonder if translating/retelling Japanese stories doesn’t appeal to him, since his own work seems to deal with more personal and/or historical narratives. Personally, I think it would be wonderful to see a Nikkei/Japanese author produce a bilingual version of this story for Nikkei kids learning about their heritage and Japanese kids learning English. Maybe a Nikkei author could collaborate with a Japanese artist – super cool!