It’s been a while since I’ve done a graphic novel review, or really a review at all in general. Yeah, I’ve been kinda busy with stuff in my life, and I know that’s probably not a good excuse, but I’m trying to get stuff done now at least. What better way to get back into it than Turning Japanese? I really think so.
Oh c’mon, you know I gotta make bad puns like these! I can’t help it! How else am I gonna reference the Turning Japanese song?
In all seriousness, though, this is probably one of the best graphic novels I have ever read. No exaggeration or hyperbole, I am dead serious. There are movies and shows I’ve seen, books and comics I’ve read, that have changed my life or at least give me a different perspective on things in life. Stories that make me question things about myself, that I might be too afraid to question or worse, afraid to answer and even wonder if it’s too late to change, if that’s possible at all. Turning Japanese by Mari Naomi is definitely one of those stories. It’s like a mix of John Hughes movies from the 80s, Silver Linings Playbook (book and movie), (500) Days of Summer, and The Disaster Artist (excited for the movie adaptation, though a bit confused why they changed the title to The Masterpiece; ok never mind I just found out they changed it back to the original title) and after just watching it, I think I’ll include Lost in Translation, though these two stories are different in regards to style and plot. Also after just watching BoJack Horseman in its entirety so far, I can’t help but feel how similar this book is to that, in regards to plot, structure, characters, style, humor, themes, and other stuff that just make you question things in life, wonder what’s gonna happen, and how to get through them.
On a sidenote, I’d like to mention how I first heard of Mari Naomi, got to meet her in person, grew to love her work, and got to be in contact with her since (through which I asked her permission to review this book because I like to be respectful, and she was more than okay with this, though I did have to ask permission from the editor for the images used in this review here). I watched a review of Atop the Fourth Wall in which Linkara reviewed a comic called Nova Girls Kissing Canvas, which was written by Scott Lobdell. He mentioned how Lobdell had sexually harassed a woman at a panel over a LIVE MICROPHONE, who was Ms. Naomi. She wrote and drew about her experience in an article for the website xojane.com. Just reading about it, as well as some of Lobdell’s comics at the time (such as Red Hood and the Outlaws, which I read some of, and his New 52 Teen Titans series, which I haven’t read but heard negative things about it and watched Linkara’s reviews of it as well his review of the aforementioned RHATO), made me see him in more of a negative light, and it makes me frustrated to hear about stuff like this happening. It’s even worse considering how more rampant this kind of shit could become now that America elected a misogynistic asshole orangutan as President (btw if the Trump police decide to come after me, I say to them, “BRING IT ON!”).
But still, if I hadn’t heard about it, I wouldn’t have heard about her, and I wouldn’t have gotten to meet her in person at SPX and become a fan of her work (as well as embarrass myself when I mentioned how I first heard about her through the Lobdell incident). The first graphic novel I read of hers was actually a collection of stories called Dragon’s Breath, which she autographed and drew a wolf for me on it (I like wolves). I might get to reviewing that someday, but to make it brief I’ll just say right now that it was a profound piece of work that made me cry at certain points, and in a good way. Turning Japanese also had the same effect on me, though it’s come at a different point in my life in which I’m questioning things even more, especially now that I’ve turned 25, which is darkly funny considering for the most part, this book is a coming-of-age story, and a good one at that.
In this story, Mari Naomi is depicted as a curious and active individual who is trying to find herself. She does this by attempting to get more in touch with her cultural identity, that being the Japanese part of her heritage, mostly by working in illegal hostess bars in San Jose and later Tokyo. Past attempts to do this did not work out so great, as she tried asking her mother about it, but to no avail. It’s especially frustrating for her because she encounters aspects of Japanese culture, but is initially unable to get more in touch with it due to lack of knowledge at the time, and hoping to see what it’s like beyond the stereotypes depicted in media. She does learn as much as she can while working at the hostess bars, but like any other job, there are always assholes who make the work environment difficult and trying to figure things out in life can almost fall to the wayside. Nevertheless, she is always determined, despite the obstacles.
Along for the ride is her fiancee in the story, Giuseppe (not his real name). Together, they are both people trying to find themselves, though they also have different priorities in life, and it’s this aspect of their relationship that makes certain things difficult, especially near the end of the story. While Mari is actively trying to get more integrated in her cultural identity, Giuseppi is more of an observer, sometimes trying to go along with what’s happening, other times kinda stumbling about. However, a key thing that they disagree on in their relationship is kids, because she doesn’t want them but he does and hoped she would change her mind, and this causes friction between them that doesn’t exactly heal, and once they return to the United States from their stay in Japan, they go their separate ways, yet remain friends.
What I really like about this story is how heartwarming, charming, funny, and yet tragic her journey can be throughout it all. She’s discovering things with this wide-eyed sense of wonder and is both baffled and astonished with how different yet kinda similar things are to what she’s been used to in her life. At one point when she visits her grandparents, she finds out how much of a wild child her own mom was when she was young, which is in contrast to what she’s used to growing up with (an “angelic” person, as Mari would put it in the story), and that she may not be so much different from her mother. Though of course, once the subject of kids is brought up with her grandparents, and she tells them she doesn’t necessarily like them, one can see why her mom left in the first place, not wanting to abide by what other people expect of her and just simply live out her own life on her own terms.
While the culture as a whole can seem different to her, she understands that it’s what makes them who and what they are, and helps define them in the world they live in. By discovering more of this, she also learns how to be the kind of person she wants to be in life. It’s also through this that people who read this story can realize certain things about their own culture and what’d they do about it, whether they want to discover something regarding it or something else entirely.
Turning Japanese is definitely a treasure’s worth of storytelling. It’s a sweet, loving, depressing, and quirky tale of how one tries to find oneself through looking into their cultural identity and how they handle it moving forward from it. The simple yet elegant drawings definitely help with this in the story. Lately, I’ve been kinda feeling existential about certain parts of my life, like what I’m gonna do and how to do it. I feel like time may be running out, that I may have to do something at some point, because if I remain the same person that I am now years from now, will I be satisfied with my life and think about what could’ve been if I handled certain things in life a different way? And if I try to do something different in the near future in my life, how will I handle it and will I become different? And why is it that thinking about this stuff scares me? Regardless, it’s good to know that there are stories like this graphic novel, that can help one realize that in a way, we are all trying to find ourselves, and what matters is how we handle it going forward. I know I’d definitely like to see a movie of this book get made and see how that would handle it.
So, I say to Mari Naomi, congratulations on all your achievements, the best of luck to you on all your endeavors, and thank you for this story and for being an awesome person. I really do think so 🙂 .