Prior to picking up this book, my only exposure to creator Yukari Takinami was through last year’s surreal anime adaptation of her Rinshi!! Ekodachan series, which is an irreverent and colourful glimpse into the life of a stressed-out female office worker. It was surprising to learn that the mind behind that particular title has also produced a few mature, non-fiction josei manga, so I couldn’t believe my luck when one of them made it across to the English-speaking world. You can definitely see threads of the same wry sense of humour in both, even though the two titles couldn’t be more different in tone.
I Wish I Could Say “Thank You” (Arigatô-tte Ietanara) is a self-contained autobiographical manga. It’s divided up into a large number of short chapters arranged in chronological order as though the author is sharing excerpts from her own personal diary with the reader. This English adaptation by Fanfare/Ponent Mon is presented as a handsome oversized softcover with a few colour pages at the start. It’s slightly pricier than most manga which reflects its niche audience; those who enjoy it will want an attractive keepsake of their time with it to add to their collections. The book would be perfectly at home on a coffee table where it might prompt visitors to start conversations that wouldn’t otherwise take place. Which is for the best, because I Wish I Could Say “Thank You” is sharing a painful, intimate and emotional journey of discovery with its readers. It’s a book which deserves to be read.
The main focus of the story is the uncomfortable relationship between the author and her mother, a subject that a lot of readers are likely to relate to on some level. The details may be different – for some of us it might be a father, another parental figure, a sibling or even a childhood friend – but the awkwardness of caring about someone with whom you wouldn’t ordinarily get along is a universal human experience. It can be especially difficult to reconcile those jumbled feelings of obligation and love when that person’s role in your life abruptly changes. And that’s exactly what happens in I Wish I Could Say “Thank You”, which begins when the author’s larger-than-life mother is unexpectedly diagnosed with terminal cancer.
What follows is a series of vignettes delving into the events which come after the diagnosis, describing how Chieko, Takinami’s mother, finds her whole life turned completely upside down. The author’s position is unusual because she is neither the person experiencing the cancer first-hand, nor the person tasked with organising the endless succession of hospital trips and day-to-day care (a duty which falls to her sister). She’s so physically detached from what is happening, in fact, that it opens up a different perspective on the problem. Takinami cares deeply about her mother and constantly worries about what she might be feeling as her hopes for the future become increasingly impossible. Yet the relationship between the two women is difficult; Chieko is far too proud to confide in any of her children and Takinami is too wary of her sharp tongue to pry. The situation is so inherently nuanced that telling the story would be an impossible task in the hands of a less capable mangaka.
It’s a position that I personally find familiar. Like the author, I have a challenging and often combative relationship with my mother, who is a layered yet emotionally distant person. And like many fans of my generation, I am of an age where dealing with a parent’s mortality is a far more relatable topic than the schoolyard scrapes we see in the majority of translated manga. I know exactly how it feels to stand in Takinami’s shoes, worrying endlessly about someone irreplaceable and subsisting on vague reports from those who have positioned themselves closer to the situation. It surprised me to realise that I have never read a single story about – or for – people who have watched these events unfold from the sidelines instead of being directly involved.
This book recounts the process of bereavement from the perspective of a woman doing just that, desperately searching for a way to reach out and offer support to the woman who raised her, while she confronts the issues which make it impossible for them to connect. There are chapters which take a break from the soul-searching and focus more on Chieko’s relationship with Takinami’s long-suffering sister, Nao, which serve to illustrate why the author is struggling. Even though Takinami’s pragmatic, distant approach appears cold, there’s a sense that she might understand Chieko’s bizarre personality on a level that Nao, who loves her family unconditionally, cannot. There’s something inexplicably compelling about watching these flawed people earnestly trying and failing to find common ground on a timeline they cannot control.
The artwork is simple and stark with no backgrounds or complex compositions to distract the reader from the story being told. Indeed, Takinami’s rough artwork never tries to be beautiful. Instead, it depicts the members of her family exactly as they appear in her eyes, from the dependable sister whose round face is always flawlessly made-up to their stern-faced mother who is always stiff and proud. The author portrays herself as a doll-like figure whose wild inner monologues are at odds with her comically blank expressions. Takinami occasionally dispenses with convention entirely and tries her hand at scratchy ink sketches of the scenes which left a particularly powerful impression when she looked back on the last year of her mother’s life. The humanity of the characters shines through beautifully in every panel, making it clear that no matter how much the women bicker in the story, they will always love one another, warts and all.
I appreciate that the author deliberately avoids lionising any of the characters. This isn’t an inspirational fairy tale about a close-knit family beating the odds and defeating a horrible disease; that’s made very clear right from the first few pages. The cancer is an inevitability which drives the main story, not a villain to be overcome with hard work and guts. Instead, the lighter moments in the story are the little victories which make life worth living to begin with. Takinami manages to turn self-deprecating anecdotes about therapy sessions, disappointing restaurants and family squabbles into charming moments of absurdity that are far too strange to be fiction.
In contrast, the serious moments without punchlines touch upon the emotional rollercoaster of caring for someone towards the end of their life. Takinami privately expresses feelings of guilt and obligation at the same time as acknowledging that her mother is dealing with the exact same emotions through a different lens. At the beginning of the book I was genuinely sceptical that I would ever come to empathise with Chieko, a woman so thoroughly acerbic and unreasonable that I couldn’t relate to her at all. It was strange to read a story where the central tragic figure was so unsympathetic! By the end, however, I had tears in my eyes. The author’s personal introspection managed to expose her mother’s own clumsiness along the way.
Manga about ordinary, everyday situations are deceptively difficult to adapt into English, especially when they’re jumping between colloquial in-jokes and medical terminology in the blink of an eye. Translating action scenes is easy; conveying the nuance of decades-long familial relationships within a handful of speech bubbles is not, especially when the Japanese language relies so heavily on context. I was pleased to see that translator Yukari Takeuchi has worked hard to respect the tone of Takinami’s work by ensuring that the main characters each have their own clear identities in the dialogue. The handful of scenes which mention hospital procedures are clear and easy to follow without the need for translation notes. A few recurring points of grammar could have used another pass from an editor but they never detract from the story.
I Wish I Could Say “Thank You” offers a courageous, honest look at the kind of situation that most of us will experience at some point in our lives and it doesn’t hold anything back, highlighting how ridiculous life can be even when everything is going wrong. Although I said that the book will probably appeal to a niche audience, anyone who isn’t put off by the dark subject matter is likely to find something relatable here. Artists will appreciate the author’s jokes about her career, parents will relate to seeing all of the characters struggling to raise their families and neurodivergent readers will recognise the experience of trying to bridge impossibly wide emotional gaps. The best manga authors are not the people who can draw the most detailed illustrations or compose the most dynamic action scenes, they’re the creators who can present their story in a way that speaks to many different people. I knew that Takinami had achieved this when my partner snatched the book to read the whole story in one sitting after glimpsing just a couple of pages.
Perhaps I’ll work up the courage to buy a copy for my own mother as well. Even if we don’t get to choose what fate has in store, it’s important to let the people we care about know how much they mean to us.
Read an extract on the publisher’s site here.