Pliant Press and Top Shelf Productions have released Lars Martinson’s Xeric Award winning Tonoharu: Part One in a redesigned paperback edition. This is worthy of celebration as Tonoharu: Part One is an amazing work and Martinson is an artist who deserves wider acclaim for the task he has undertaken in service of his muse.
Ostensibly, Tonoharu “tells the story of a young American who moves to rural Japan to work as an English teacher.” This is a framing device for something larger, providing a springboard for an examination of social mores, concepts of culture, ideas about the nature of language, and, above all else, how we connect with each other. These are big ideas of course, ones that require deft hands to balance without tipping. Martinson has those hands
In its 128 blue and black pages there is a certain heaviness to Martinson’s art, though none of it heavy-handed. Each panel bears dense cross-hatching of fine and uniform lines, an at-times nearly impermeable sieve that never diminishes a sense of space as he creates engaging perspectives with dynamic triangular compositions throughout. There is an almost obsessive attention to background detail. The energy released from Martinson’s ink creates a wave-like frequency despite the absence of nearly any curved lines. This visceral tension mirrors the protagonist’s painfully tense emotional interior, a tension also inherent in Japanese culture and the language barrier it presents.
And it’s subtle.
Upon first glance this appears to be a quiet book, one in which little happens that isn’t of a personal nature and almost whispered in hushed tones. The main character of the narrative, Dan, is ill-prepared for his adventure abroad, but this lack of preparation only leads to isolation, not danger. As the story unfolds, though, it seems that Dan has brought a certain amount of isolation with him to begin with. He’s socially awkward and has led a quiet life. What could have been a grand adventure for him appears to only to create a further spiral into the self, a place where hardly anyone, especially a guy like Dan, seems to be at home.
It is almost as if part of the story reflects the notion that you only find your “true self” by leaving your comfort zone. But this is misleading; there is something else going on in Tonoharu: Book One, some larger thing on the outlying edges that moves this from simple platitudes and navel-gazing onto a grander stage.
In his afterword to this book, Martinson writes, “The experiences that inspire me most are those that make me feel like the world is a huge, terrible, exhilarating place filled with untraveled roads, fascinating strangers, and endless possibility.” As Book One stands, one would hardly guess that Martinson harbored these feelings. Like I said, there is a continuous scent of quiet isolation throughout its narrative. Yet there are wafts of fermentation underneath, dark hedonistic secrets that arise in the freedom of “exotic locales” and different customs. This story is poised to be filled with torrid turns as Martinson completes subsequent volumes.
Still, at its heart, Tonoharu is a book about communication, about connecting, about learning through our shared experiences and defining ourselves through the eyes of others. The story of Dan becomes the story of us. This is the thematic sandbox in which artists build castles and Martinson is building Neuschwanstein.
Daniel Wells begins a new life as an assistant junior high school teacher in the rural Japanese village of Tonoharu. Isolated from those around him by cultural and language barriers, he leads a monastic existence, peppered only by his inept pursuit of the company of a fellow American who lives a couple towns over. But contrary to appearances, Dan isn't the only foreigner to call Tonoharu home. Across town, a group of wealthy European eccentrics are boarding in a one-time Buddhist temple, for reasons that remain obscure to their gossiping neighbors.