Tonoharu: Part One (Pliant Press)

tonoharu-header.gifFollow American ex-patriots making their way as English teachers in Japan in this deliberately paced yet highly seductive narrative.


128 pages, B&W; $19.95 hardcover

(W & A: Lars Martinson)

Whenever I think of Japan, I think of the steamy streets and hyper-gaudy neon skies of Tokyo. Closer to the point, what I imagine looks a whole lot like Ridley Scott’s vision of Los Angeles in Blade Runner. So, when I dove headfirst into Lars Martinson’s new graphic novel Tonoharu: Part One, I felt like I was experiencing Japan from the slightly awed and awkward perspective of a tourist who hopped on the wrong plane. This is a good thing, as what I was experiencing was quite different than what I was expecting.

The cover to Tonoharu. Click for a larger image.In Tonoharu: Part One, we follow two American expatriate AETs; Assistant English Teachers, who are working in rural Japan. What initially appears to be a numbing litany of everyday minutia quickly becomes a deceptively seductive narrative. Between the calm and deliberate pace of Martinson’s script and the R.Crumb-inspired artwork, we intimately experience the painfully humorous attempts of the young teachers doing their best to connect to the people and the world around them.

A prologue sets the dry-humored tone for the rest of the book, as we are introduced to one of the AETs as he arrives in Tonoharu to replace the exiting American, one Daniel Wells. Daniel seems worn-out, and somewhat reluctant to share his experiences with the excited newcomer. Later, we delve into Daniel’s own arrival in Japan to piece together how he came to such a state.

Stuck trying to figure out what his assistant teaching job actually entails, Daniel takes his best shot at communicating with the Japanese students. When they question him about his life, he is so frustrated with his bland answers, that he begins making up more outlandish and absurd responses to win their approval. When he is introduced to an American female teacher, he pins his hopes of banishing his alienation on her; only to discover his luck isn’t any better with a fellow fish-out-of-water.

Lars Martinson’s black and white illustrations perfectly frame the lives of his funny and fragile characters. Besides the wonderful illustrations, the hardcover book is handsomely packaged and very reasonably priced at $19.95. This is actually the first book in a planned four-book series; and since the story simply stops, rather than ends, I am genuinely looking forward to seeing how Dan navigates and survives the rest of his stay in the little village of Tonoharu. | Jim Ousley

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