Saito Nazuna’s “Offshore Lightning” is the latest release of Drawn & Quarterly’s ongoing effort to publish the works of the Japanese gekiga comics movement. As covered earlier in our review of Yoshiharu Tsuge’s “Red Flowers,” gekiga, a genre of comics largely published in the avant-garde magazine Garo during the 1960s, is a sharp contrast to the formulas of modern manga, featuring works that are not only moodier than mainstream manga, but often more literary and artistically expressive. Much like Tsuge’s travelogue era, Saito’s stories are often low-to-the-ground explorations of postwar Japanese life, often with a flourish of literary inspiration, though Saito’s inspiration is occasionally Tsuge himself.
What makes Saito unique is her background. As detailed in a companion essay, once again written by Mitshiro Asakawa as in “Red Flowers,” Saito’s work came late: her first comic wasn’t published until 1986, long after the gekiga heyday and she was never published in Garo. She was also forty when first published, starting her career in an industry that mostly recruits talent in their teens or twenties. While her early work isn’t particularly autobiographical, the perspective is firmly middle-aged. If something from youth is to be considered, it is to be done from a considerable number of decades in between, either nostalgically or with regret. Marriages, careers, even the coming specter of death itself are all considered from the regret of the past and the anxiety of the future.
There is a shift in that perspective that reflects a shift in Saito. Following her nineties peak, both her mother and husband fell ill, prompting a hiatus that didn’t end until their passings in the mid-2010s. Upon her return, her comics became longform and personal. The first of these, “In Captivity,” follows a mangaka navigating her long-hospitalized mother’s finally approaching death. Whether the title refers to the cage an adult child is caught in when caring for a diminished parent or that of the diminished parent caught in long-term care is left ambiguous, but a central motif in this end-of-life tale is the imagery of Böcklin’s famous “Island of the Dead” painting. The final story, “House of Solitary Death” is similarly obsessed with end-of-life realities, depicting an aged mangaka witnessing the community of elderly folks living in her apartment complex as they gradually disappear one by one, dying solitary deaths, as she and her closest neighbor comment on life’s fleeting yet cyclical nature.
In covering these two eras of Saito, “Offshore Lightning” not only provides us with examples of comics we don’t associate with manga, it provides us a rare perspective. In a field as regimented by genre as manga can be and as youth-focused as those genres tend to be, tales of old age as told by those living it is a rarity. In fact, work covering old age with this level of frankness is rare regardless of artistic medium. We should feel grateful that Saito not only began publishing manga or that she returned to us, both already unlikely by themselves, but that Drawn & Quarterly chose to highlight her. Between this and their other recent manga publications, they’re quickly becoming one of the most interesting localizers of manga in the United States, frequently showing fresh sides of a medium that even dedicated manga readers would find unfamiliar.
by Saito Nazuna
Drawn & Quarterly, 384 pages, $29.95