Ichiro

It’s a little recognized fact that whatever madness you find through the looking glass is bound to be a reflection of yourself. It’s one that young Ichiro discovers in more ways than one over the course of this gorgeous, Eisner-nominated, original graphic novel by writer/artist Ryan Inzana.

Ichiro’s American father died in ‘the war’ and he grew up with his Japanese mother in Brooklyn, New York. His only father figure is his jingoist grandpa Benny, who takes great pride in reminding his half-Asian nephew that the military is great and that the foreigners and “A-rabs” are taking advantage of America’s hospitality. But when his mother’s job takes her back to Japan and Ichiro finds himself in the care of his maternal grandfather, Mr. Sato, he discovers that there are other worlds out there, and that the one he knows is more complicated than he could have imagined.

Ichiro is a beautiful examination of what it means to be American, to be Japanese, to fit in, to be a man, to be a soldier, and to be an individual in a world that tempts us with easy answers and half-truths. Like so many of his literary peers, Ichiro is at that formative age where he is faced with a choice of who to be. What sets his story apart is the clarity with which Ichiro’s confusion comes through, despite his certain words.

The nuance present in the tale is a happy surprise. Just because the apparent good guys are sometimes more nefarious than they seem, they rarely make a full conversion into flat-out villainy. In fact, one thing that is interesting is the ambiguity as to where fault really lies in the story. At times it seems that the blame falls at the feet of those with the gall to take advantage of society’s ills, where at others it seems like they are just pawns of systems of fear.

This is nominally a book for children (at least my library thought so), but it asks some of the most important questions a work of literature can ask. What is it to be foreign? Is there such thing as a just war? Is there a difference between a war against enemies and a war against principles and, if so, which is morally superior? Though the core of the book is very much about identity and Otherness, much of the exploration of these topics come through the guise of war, as emblemized by the presence of Hachiman and Susanoo-Wo, the Japanese gods of war and storms, respectively.

Inzana tells us a lot but has the respect for his audience to leave it up to them how to interpret his message. The closest we get to finality is a pair of maxims from Granpa Sato. “Heaven and Hell are in the hearts of all men” he tells Ichiro, quoting a Buddhist saying. But perhaps when viewed together, the more important one is this seemingly simple statement: “No weapon can end war…”

I’ve always had a certain fascination with Japanese responses to World War II, being a nation living in continuity with themselves, yet permanently changed by the war. Perhaps he doesn’t tell us about the Japanese as a people, but he certainly gives us a compelling look at one Japanese man, in the form of Granpa Sato, and at the legacy of that man, in the form of his grandson. In this, Inzana paints a beautiful portrait of universal identity through a lens of a uniquely Japanese experience. Though, for me, this is the strongest section of the book, what follows makes a powerful argument for why these lessons are relevant in a modern world.

Ichiro YellowIf the script of the book seems focused on the way that war defines identity, the art argues for how identity draws the lines of war. Inzana’s work takes unique advantage of the comics medium, utilizing composition, color, and dialogue bubbles in beautiful and inventive ways to express the intricacies of Ichiro’s struggle to define himself. Using different dialogue bubbles to express a shift in language is a simple but extremely effective device, and the unclear quality that resides in yellow tinted balloons is insidiously effective. Readers familiar with comics or who have a proclivity towards color symbolism will likely notice these devices quickly enough, but they may not be clear immediately, nor entirely so after multiple readings. By neglecting a key to explain these tricks, Inzana forces the reader to engage with the questions of identity they raise or else accept that there is a layer of meaning that goes over their heads: gaijin, foreigners. Particularly in scenes like Ichiro playing his guitar on the docks, these choices feel distinctly appropriate, giving a vague approximation of what plays through our protagonist’s head.

The art is attractive all throughout. Inzana calls upon admirable restraint, crafting a style that, like the content of the story, is part manga, part comic book, but mostly just simple storytelling. The lines are clear and colors invoked only when necessary. The book is easy to read, panels flowing easily in simple arrangements for most of it. This only changes on a few critical pages where Inzana calls upon the layouts of his story, and when he does they’re almost always clear. And as an added bonus, between sections we’re treated to what appear to be (or at least resemble) old Japanese ink paintings. Though it would be quite stunning to see the whole book illustrated this way, I’m not sure that it would have served the story as well and the momentary difference leaves the palate refreshed and yearning for more of Inzana’s illustrations.

One thing that will seriously affect your appreciation for Ichiro is how much you enjoy mythology lessons and historical digression. Ichiro spends a lot of time hearing Shinto and Japanese stories in this book. Sometimes they’re essential, others they’re just fun additions that set the stage for later or give you a cool moment down the line. Either way, there are a lot of them.

I think it’s fair to say that Inzana depended heavily on these segments to break up long stretches of Ichiro pondering his place in the world or stalking a fruit thief. I found them fascinating, but I wouldn’t fault anyone for feeling that there’s something artificial about the pacing. Still, there’s something appropriate in learning these full color stories alongside Ichigo, and once they become relevant they help give Inzana the context he needs to let his imagination flow. This is obviously not a book best suited to particularly young children, but it’s worth mentioning that the book gets pretty trippy in places. Combined with the heavy themes of the book and the realistic tone, it wouldn’t at all surprise me if the story unnerved some readers, so read accordingly.

With Ichiro, Inzana turns a spotlight on Japanese culture for his American readers, but focuses on what is essential and universal in both cultures, and, honestly, all others. Perhaps then, it’s not surprising that the story doesn’t quite come together. There’s a lot of philosophical weight to this book, but though it does an excellent job of sparking thought, it doesn’t feel like it has a fully supported thesis. While Ichiro’s adventures are a visually impressive allegory for the futility of war, they separate cleanly into tone and ideas, as certain as oil and water.

I loved this book. It’s the sort of comic that I’ll probably remember for years and years. I had the good fortune to find it in my local library, but even if you’re not so blessed, $20 will get you a large and lovely hardcover edition. Whether you’re closer in age to Ichiro or Granpa Sato, this is a comic that you can sit down with and enjoy over and over again. It’s an incredible argument for why comics, fantasy, and old mythologies are not only relevant but essential. Mr. Sato tells Ichiro that it is the duty of old men like him “to pass down…history to their grandsons. To prevent it from happening again,” but that’s not the whole truth. Only with such mindfulness do we avoid the tragedies of our past, but, as this volume shows us, the past also gives us beauty to strive towards, comfort in our flaws, and stories to treasure.

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