Tonoharu is a graphical novel covering the story of Daniel Wells, the one and only American in the small town of Tonoharu. He is an Assistant Language Teacher working at the local rural Japanese school, surrounded by students and teachers who speak very little to no English. The end result is a story that focuses on the difficulties of working in such a place, and ultimately how lonely that can be.
Daniel went to Tonoharu with high hopes of drastically improving his Japanese language skills, while at the same time having a positive effect on the students he would be teaching. Now with one year spent at the school, Daniel needs to decide on whether to sign up for a second year. This isn’t an easy decision as his language skills have not improved, and his involvement with students is minimal at best.
One thing that has to be made clear to anyone considering reading Tonoharu, is that this is a very slow moving, semi-autobiographical look at the life of Daniel Wells. It can be quite painful to read at times due to the character’s inability to make conversation and gain some friends. You feel like pushing him to try harder, which can leave you frustrated.
This isn’t to say Tonoharu is in any way a bad book. On the contrary, I have never seen this approach taken to describing the life of an English teacher in Japan before. Especially one in such a remote location away from the likes of Tokyo. Because of that it gives you a new insight into what a foreigner faces by deciding to take on such a role for a year or two.
The difficulty in communicating with a Japanese person in broken Japanese and broken English is tackled well. The long silences, awkwardness, and ultimate breakdown of the conversation is all conveyed realistically. In fact the whole novel manages to make you feel the awkwardness of the situation Daniel is in.
The most enjoyable aspect of the book has to be the art style, though. There’s a lot of manga available to buy, and while the art style can vary drastically, there’s usually a level of quality you expect across the pages. Lars Martinson, author of Tonoharu, has bucked that trend and produced something quite beautiful in this series.
His inking in the book is a two-stage process using both a brush and a dip pen. The end result is a very intricately detailed set of panels where the characters jump out at you. It’s very pleasant on the eye and must have taken a very long time to do. It certainly adds to the charm of this little hardback book.
Tonoharu is a four-part series, but my one complaint about that is the length of each part. 116 pages make up the first part, and the story has only just got going when you reach the end. This is good in a way as it makes you want to get Part Two as soon as possible, but at the same time you do feel a little short-changed by how small of a graphic novel it is.
If you have any interest in going to Japan to teach English, then Tonoharu should be mandatory reading before you go. Part One sets the scene and paves the way for an intriguing story tackling living and working in Japan from a very different standpoint. If you have any interest in Japan and the Japanese people you will find this an intriguing and good read.
It’s also worth pointing out that Lars has created a supporting website giving more information on the series, but also going into great detail on the design and his thought processes. It’s well worth a look (http://larsmartinson.com/).