The year 2015 saw this manga winning two prestigious awards – 1st place of Manga Taishou [マンガ大賞] and the grand prize in the manga division of Japan Media Arts Festival held by Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs [文化庁メディア芸術祭マンガ部門]. You have my word that these awards are well-deserved.
Kakukaku Shikajika [かくかくしかじか] by Akiko Higashimura [東村アキコ] is a retelling of the author’s own life story from undergoing Japan’s exam hell to be admitted into a good art college, then graduating at a time of recession with no job prospects and ending up with work at a call centre while working at night to produce manga, to finally getting a break as a manga artist. Against the background of all these life events, there is her art teacher Kenzou Higata, who is known for his severity, eccentricity as well as his boundless selflessness in respect of his students.
A severe, eccentric and boundlessly selfless teacher. Have you ever come across a teacher like that? I know I have. Perhaps that is why I felt like my heart was being cut into 1cm cubes and then put into a garlic press while reading this manga.
Kenzou Higata is an oddity who only first aspired to drawing and painting at the ripe age of 29. He never attended art college, but somehow ended up having his own workshop where he privately coached private students of all ages. He will have none of that modern pedagogic nonsense of lavishing people with praise to boast their self-confidence. Instead, he shouts, screams and walks around with a bamboo sword as though he were a zen master ready to strike you with a keisaku.
This is a story of expectations, hopes, cross-purposes, misunderstandings and regrets between master and disciple. And we are talking “master and disciple” in the old-fashioned Japanese sense of the word, meaning that the relationship carries on outside class time and even long after graduation. For example, a scene that has burnt itself onto my memory is when he travels a long way by plane to the town where Akiko attends art college to see for himself how she is getting on. However, Akiko, having foolishly boasted to her classmates that she had never taken any private drawing lessons to prepare for admission to college, was ashamed to let him meet her classmates. At the end, he leaves behind a bottle of sake wine without saying much. After he left, Akiko realizes that he had wanted to talk to her and other young people about Art in an intimate and personal way while having sake wine together…
Most manga artists only publish a new instalment every one or two months, but Akiko Higashimura is a rarity who always has three or four series going on and an instalment deadline to meet almost every week. Reading this story, you will come to understand how she has learned to draw well, draw fast and draw a lot.
This manga also reminds me of a personal friend giving advice to young literary aspirants. He said, “never set your pen to write fiction based on your own life experiences when you are young. Life experiences take time to mature. Selling off a story based on your own life is like selling what narrow plot of land you own before you have planted anything on it. And worse, you can only sell that plot of land once. That’s why fiction these days are boring – too many writers writing fictional stories of the lives of writers. Live when you are young and write when you old. If one volume is all that you manage to condense your life experiences into, then one volume it is.”
Akiko Higashimura began serializing this manga in 2012 at the age of 37 – years after Kenzou passed away. This is also after she has experienced marriage, childbirth and divorce. It is not the first time she draws on her own life experiences as materials for a manga series either. Between 2006 and 2010, she wrote about her father in Himawari ~ Kenichi Legends [ひまわりっ 〜健一レジェンド〜], which I thought was lacking in focus. Between 2007 and 2011, she also wrote about her toddler son in Mama wa Tenparisuto [ママはテンパリスト], an above-average work. I have also read her other “fictional fictional” works such as Kurage-hime / Princess Jellyfish [海月姫] (2008 – present), Omoni Naiteimasu [主に泣いてます] (2010-2013) and Yukibana no Tora [雪花の虎] (2015 – present). They are good in their own way, but none of them is of the same calibre as Kakukaku Shikijika.