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Sunday, March 30, 2008

YKK, Alpha at the end of the world.

With Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou by Ashinano Hitoshi, I'm going to start some way into the story and work backwards. I'm doing this not just because the art in YKK improves over time, but because I think that improvement is a good example of one of the strengths of the Japanese method of producing comics.

Rather than featuring a single character in a the 32-page monthly comic book, that needs a complete independent story every month, and sinks or swims on its own, the Japanese market produces anthology magazines that feature the adventures of several regular characters and contain hundreds of pages, weekly, bi-weekly or monthly. This is a method that both helps a popular feature develop a large fan base and allows a slow-burner to gather momentum over time. The characters do not feature in their own volumes, or graphic novels, until they have developed a fan base. The Japanese anthology format is actually very like standard British comics, same cheap newsprint paper with a colour cover (better quality than the old British covers) and the odd colour pages inside, but Mandy, Bunty, Judy, etc, all merged together with some characters dropped and others given more pages. The anthology YKK appeared in can contain almost 1,000 pages, with very few adverts, and sells for just a couple of pounds. And of course the characters are owned by their creators rather than by IPC and DC Thomson.

Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou is often abbreviated to YKK or known as Quiet Country Café, Cafe Alpha or by its more literal translation as Record of a Yokohama Shopping Trip. The story, all 14 volumes of it, ran in Kodansha's Afternoon magazine from 1994 through to 2006.

I'm pretty sure it was Dirk Deppey who pointed a bunch of us at it and it is the work I consider most influential in my conversion to a fan of wider range of manga. It wasn't so much the story, which I came to enjoy, or the artwork, of which my appreciation grew, but the pace of the story I immediately enjoyed. There was something tranquil about its leisurely pace that appealed to me. I actually sought out similar works and I was surprised to find posters online suggesting similarly slowly-paced stories because it was not really a quality I had ever even considered a quality before.

In 2007, Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou won the Seiun Award for best science fiction comic. At the heart of the story, you see, is a small humanoid robot, an android, called Alpha Hatsuseno, looking after a cafe, Cafe Alpha, on Japan's Miura Peninsula, on a planet that has suffered an environmental disaster that has seen sea levels rise dramatically and the human population largely disappear, in a time regarded as the Twilight of the Human Age, and she, an immortal, is waiting for her maker, the man who owns her, to return.

That is the overriding arch, but the story largely depicts Alpha either alone, deep in thought, with the occasional customer, making coffee, taking photographs, or on trips through the countryside or into Yokohama for supplies. Whole chapters of the story have very little or no dialogue and can be taken up with Alpha just relaxing or sight-seeing, or taking photographs. It is an essay in enjoying the childlike wonder of everyday life, and as the children from the area do what Alpha cannot do, grow old and move away, the story evokes the tradition of mono no aware.

I actually changed the way I thought about my work because of this story. I am from the western tradition of comic writing and I had a particular view of how a tale should unfold and of what dramatic events should illustrate the story. I think, or at least I thought in terms of getting from A to B with a set of significant leaps, you know, leaving a long trail of ellipses. After reading YKK though, I made some drastic changes and oddly enough it made me think about Joyce having Stephen collect epiphanies, not because this story caused me to have one, but because the epiphany isn't one thing it can be a series of events that have no significance at all, at first glance, either to the reader or to the characters in a story. Here was a story unfolding over as long as it takes to tell the tale, an illustrator forgoing big artistic statements to show the significance of drawing a passing cloud. Here was a story that would reveal an event in chapter 4 as a significant event only when the reader got to chapter 137. This was a real revelation to me.

I have to say, I was becoming increasingly irritated watching the YKK anime. Eventually, I just muted the sound and started the thing again. Not because of the voices, but because of the music. There is a peacefulness, a tranquility about the manga, ironically it just the silence of desolation, but it is none the less a quite story and the music was getting right up my conk. I will let you look at some stills from it in silence:

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