Fumio Obata’s graphic novel Just So Happens is a tale of cultural difference, identity and assimilation. Yumiko is a young woman at a turning point both in her own life but also, in some ways, in the life of her country. Living in London with her English boyfriend Mark and working as a designer as part of a fledging agency, Yumiko is considering her future; the death of her father, a kind if traditional elderly man given to lonely mountain walks, propels her back home and brings her face to face with her dilemma, which Obata represents in the form of a character from Noh, the stylised Japanese theatrical tradition. Obata makes the point explicitly in the latter half of the book, as Yumiko says:
‘It is hard to explain the aesthetics of Noh theatre to Western audiences. The nuances are so specific. It is important to know what it tries to transmit to us. In Japanese arts, the forms and patterns are refined by artists over centuries… In order to express its idea of a transcendental world, one must put the heart and mind in total resonance with the theatrical role. And during the process all the natural traits are simplified.’
It’s good to have this in your mind at the start of the book as words and images drift by in the opening section, Obata setting the scene of Yumiko’s life in a way that feels somewhat superficial. The art is beautiful, reminiscent of Rutu Modan’s work (particularly The Property) in its use of pastel shades and watercolour, but the narrative drifts by, the world passing Yumiko’s eyes through the window of a bus or on a street. It takes a while to understand what Obata is seeking to show and also to warm to Yumiko as a character. A late conversation with her mother following her father’s funeral brings the arc of the book into sharp focus and propelled this reader right back to the start, demanding a much slower reading. This is a book you may want to study, a book of inflection and nuance, a delicate, thoughtful book that entrances the eyes and compels the old grey matter.
There is much to like. The mixture of smaller and larger frames, the use of white space and the careful use of colour and detail make for an experience in which the readers pulses, anemone-like, into the story and out to admire the art, into and out. The crisis, when it comes – recalling Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel and the scene where Toshiro Mifune’s gangster comes face to face with himself – is beautifully done, a two page image perfectly encapsulating Yumiko’s disordered state of mind, the kind of arresting oddity that will have you losing yourself in its oblique curiousness. It is this mixture of prosaic reality and dreaming hallucination that makes Just So Happens a recommended read: in some respects it is easier to be one thing or another, easier to be experimental or straightforward, much harder to marry the two in a way that feels satisfying and whole. Obata achieves that remarkable result and the book is engaging and thoughtful as a result.
Any Cop?: With Just So Happens Fumio Obata has leapt on to our ‘graphic novelists whose books we will always check out’ list.