To be honest: manga-like picture books, especially in the guise of "graphic novels", are not my first choice of reading. So I was very skeptical when I opened "Manabeshima Island Japan", Florent Chavouet's second illustrated book on Japan. Je m'excuse! After I had read through the first few pages I realized that I had to reconsider my preconceptions about illustrated cultural guides. Here is a veritable gem depicting a Japan so different from other guidebooks; a Japan far apart from glitzy urban megalopolis and trodden cultural treasures. Here is a work of art that captures the remote microcosm of a tiny tranquil Japanese island.
In the summer of 2009, Chavouet decided to spend two months on Manabeshima (真鍋島), an island located in the Seto Inland Sea and home to some 300 inhabitants, with only his sketchbook and a set of crayons, and started to illustrate his discoveries and interactions with the local population from the moment he landed on the small pier and managed to install himself in the Santora, a former school and the only hotel in situ. His visual portraits of the islanders surrounding him every day grasp the essence of each character in a sometimes comic, yet always sensitive and respectful manner.
There's Hiroshi, the fisherman, whose family has been carving out a living on the island for over 300 years and who introduces Chavouet not only to marine life, but to the best "bikini spots" too; Ikkyu-san, the grumpy but galant inn-keeper who also fills in as the local Shinto priest and his regulars Day-Glo Cap Guy, Skinny Guy and Greasy-Haired Guy whose lives seem to revolve around the weeny bar; the Nakamuras who had just moved to the island with five children a year ago trying to reverse Manabe's downward demographic spiral; Shimura-san, a former fisherman and small-time farmer and Chavouet's constant companion and saviour who rescued him from the advances of the enamoured Mamiko; Kurata-san, the local arm of the law clad in shorts and flipflops who was transferred from Osaka for reasons unknown and to whom almost every aspect of the island appears to be just "abunai" (dangerous); there's Rock, the vagabond fisherman, the nonagenarian Reizo-san, the village intellectual, as well as Morimoto-san aka Mr. Technology, and many others.
Chavouet's drawings of the island are colourful, in vivid detail and create the illusion of scenes magically unfolding right in front of your eye. Some locations are shown through a spectacular "fisheye perspective", snapshots of daily life that reveal a lot about the people and the places they live in. Chavouet also succeeds in visually capturing the resonance of his environment, in particular the sounds of Japanese summers, with forests and trees resounding with the deafening cacophony of cicadas. Aside his perspicacious observations, he introduces a plethora of Japanese customs and traditions, some of them common, such as hanabi, fireworks especially popular in summer, but others not so known like kagura, a traditional form of theatre performed by ensembles that tour the islands of the Inland Sea throughout summer, umibotaru (phosphorescent plankton) caught in jars and played with, the spectrum of local food and how to catch and eat it (anything but starfish and horseshoe crabs!), and the inevitable summer matsuri (festivals).
All in all, "Manabeshima" is a feast for the eyes, full of colourful splendour and charming anecdotes, rich in intricate details you will only discover on reading the book a second or third time. If you have the slightest interest in Japan, you will greatly enjoy this book. I will now have to get Chavouet's first book "Tokyo on Foot", too!
PS: The book includes an illustrated map of the island which unfolds to 28 1/2 x 20 1/2 inches stored in the back pocket (drawn by the author).
Interviews with the author (in French):
Manabeshima from the sky (drone view):