Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms by Fumiyo Kouno (An Oxford College Student Review!)
In this column, I feature comic book reviews written by my students at Oxford College of Emory University. Oxford College is a small liberal arts school just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. I challenge students to read and interpret comics because I believe sequential art and visual literacy are essential parts of education at any level (see my Manifesto!). I’ll be posting the best of my students’ reviews in this column. Today, I am proud to present a review by Grace Nguyen:
Grace Nguyen is a freshman at Oxford College of Emory University and is interested in sociology, law, and business. She was born and raised in Westminster, CA until she turned eight and moved to Macon, GA. Grace is a proud daughter of immigrants and is passionate about serving low income and first generation communities like the one she grew up in. She hopes to use her education to create resources for these marginalized communities.
Fumiyo Kouno tells the reader in the afterword of her manga Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms (which I will refer to as TECCCB from now on) that despite being a Hiroshima native, neither she nor her family experienced the nuclear bomb. However, she felt it important to create a first person narrative from others’ experiences that even she “most needed to hear.” Manga*, in my opinion, is the best way to educate outsiders about the Hiroshima nuclear bombing and its lasting effects – not only is manga indigenous to the Japanese culture, but its art style offers the visual empathy we lack in pictureless texts. TECCCB is split into two related stories: Town of Evening Calm follows a first person narrative and Country of Cherry Blossoms explores the effects of the bomb in future generations. Kouno’s inclusion of both accounts gives us a fuller understanding of an event we often mentally categorize as a time too far in the past to be relevant today. TECCCB was memorable for not only giving us a visual of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb’s lasting effects, but also creating an irresistible attachment to characters that are suffering from a real world event often studied but rarely understood.
Minami, the main character of Town of Evening Calm and survivor of the nuclear bombing, struggles to find peace in an everyday life after the horrors she witnessed from the atomic bomb ten years ago. Her inability to forget her past causes her to suffer mentally and within her relationships with those around her. Kouno explores the dark reality of Hiroshima after World War II not from any political viewpoint but from that of the survivors themselves.
I couldn’t help but notice Kouno’s masterful use of shading to depict the darkness that Minami’s memories are seeped in. These panels contain darkly shaded characters that Minami associates to the bomb and one can see the literal darkness in the background of Minami’s memories. I believe the panel that showed this the best was where Minami thinks about her family in relation to the bomb; the artwork was subtle and minimal, but I could not help but become attached to and feel sympathy for characters that had neither features nor solid form. Kouno is careful to keep her artwork subtle yet purposeful to encourage the reader to bond with Minami while developing an empathy strong enough to understand her feelings about the world and those she cares about. At climatic moments, Kouno uses minimal artistic flair to force the readers to fill in the gaps and let them come to their own realizations, freeing the imagination to explore the darkest possibilities.
Country of Cherry Blossoms, on the other hand, is much lighter than Town of Evening Calm. Here, Kouno illustrates the fading memory yet lasting effect of the atomic bomb in generations that follow its detonation. Nanami, our new heroine, is introduced decades after Town of Evening Calm as a child. We are shown a snippet of Nanami’s childhood in a new town away from Hiroshima – a life seemingly far from the bomb and devoid of its effects. However, Nanami develops an interest in her history and takes the reader with her on a journey to rediscover the past.
There are many “favorites” for me about this manga, but the one that stands out the most is Kouno’s ability to take a historical topic like the atomic bomb and strip it down to a fictional yet highly personal experience for the reader. Prior to reading TECCCB, I knew the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima was tragic, but I shamefully admit that I never felt true sorrow over the deaths following the bomb. TECCCB made the experiences of the survivors human for me; they were survivors, but their survival was cursed. For the first time since first learning about the atomic bomb, I truly mourned the deaths of those affected.
I did look for flaws to critique in Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms, but I realized that it was impossible. This manga told the Hiroshima story in a way that no textbook could. I felt true sorrow and mourned the deaths of victims both in and outside of the manga; no manga has ever evoked such raw and real emotions from me before. If I could, I would require every World History class to read this manga and develop a human perspective and sense of loss in the single, most cruel act of war ever committed. How can I give such a work of art anything less than five stars?
*A tip for reading TECCCB: this is a traditional manga that starts at the American back cover and reads from right to left. TECCCB was translated so some phrases may seem awkward, but knowing this beforehand may offer the reader some flexibility in deriving meaning from these phrases.