Reading Women #1: Fumiyo Kouno’s Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms (2007)

Nothing makes you feel quite so fragile as having an atomic bomb dropped on you. Fumiyo Kouno’s comic Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms explores how that fragility can persist in the Bomb’s aftermath, garnering future Japanse generations with instability. Her two tales—connected by recurring characters and Hiroshima as locale—are drawn with a wispy, thin line that suggests that you could just blow it away. Kouno’s line is shaky, even with the landscapes and buildings, so that the distinction between foregrounded characters and the physical world in which they inhabit is miniscule. Given that Kouno’s buildings and details have slightly rounded edges and subtle imperfections, the comic’s unsteadiness captures how its characters feel in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Everything’s sort of flesh-like in her art, which means that everything looks like it can be bruised. Indeed, Kouno’s young women have bruises and scars marring their souls. In “Town of Evening Calm,” Minami—a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing—tries to go about her day a decade later, but it’s clear she’s struggling. She lives with her mother in a shack with roof leaks; despite working her ass off, she can’t afford to buy basic clothes; she runs afraid from a man who obviously loves her.  She’s scared of living her life. “Country of Cherry Blossoms,” itself a bifurcated story, one of Minami’s relatives returns to Hiroshima from another city to pay his respects to survivors and to piece together his wife’s past (she died of radiation sickness from the bombing), and is followed surreptitiously by his daughter. Though this second tale takes place in 1987 and 2004, respectively, people are still dying of Hiroshima-related illness. People still can’t make sense of the bombings. They carry Hiroshima around with them. Kouno uses a nifty trick for flashbacks: frames representing the past are printed in a light gray, rather than the present day’s rich black ink. The gray tone almost disappears into the page, as if the past is in danger of fading away.  In one bravura panel, Minami finally kisses her sweetheart on a bridge; that part’s set in black. All around her, though, in light gray, are the marred human carcasses and structural debris of that bridge’s history, strewn on the overpass and floating in the river.  Minami’s joyous love is overtaken by her survivors guilt in a single frame. Kouno uses other elements of design to convey the richness of her technique. Minami runs away from her suitor, and the action’s axis rotates 90 degrees, so that her horizontal running is drawn in a vertical panel. (She seems to be running up to the top of the page.)  The effect causes vertigo that she experienced on 6 August 1945, and which she’s remembering in vivid, horrifying voiceover.  Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms uses voiceover particularly well as counterpoint to what we’re seeing. Sometimes, Kouno dismisses with images for pages at a time—as when a character goes blind—and the frames contain only small words in big white space. Throughout, Kouno controls pacing, how long the eye lingers on small details (a raindrop falling  on a kitchen floor) and large vistas (Minami looking at a bombed-out hospital; Nanami imagining her parents in love, on a bridge) by varying the size and length of panels. Frames frequently bleed to the page’s edge, suggesting that what’s being seen is too big to be contained, as if there’s much more that we’ll never quite grasp. White space and text-only panels interrupt otherwise busy pages in a way that flows naturally. (Town is never hard to follow.) Kouno masters emotional resonance as well as she handles formal technique. The characters get across their pain—and their redemption—with sly glances, verbal asides, and evocative dialogue that’s both casual and heartbreaking.  Everything in Town moves like simple breaths, until Kouno inserts a moment—a harsh blood splatter, a mangled leg, a woman vomiting—that reveals how hard it is for these characters to breathe at all. The Bomb’s effects infect one generation to the next, like syphilis. By drawing its aftermath so naturally and articulately, Kouno begins to seek a cure.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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