Like most of the English-literate world, Offshore Lightning will probably be your introduction to manga-ka Saito Nazuna. Though hardly a household name, even in her homeland, she arrives in this fine English edition with a personal narrative as interesting and complex as any of the ten stories included here. Credit is due to Drawn & Quarterly for continuing to bring attention to artists like Nazuna, much as they did with last year’s Talk to My Back from Murasaki Yamada, even if the subject matter couldn’t be any more dissimilar.
A relative late bloomer, Saito Nazuna only started drawing manga professionally at age 40, though she’d been illustrating articles and features at various periodicals for years before submitting her first full-length manga to publishers in the style commonly known as gekiga, or manga designed for mature readers. Here the word “mature” is literal as Nazuna shows an unusual gift of empathizing with the perspectives of her aging characters (whom she playfully calls “old fogeys”).
Among the stories included are “Towards the Sunset”, where a man learns to find solace in small, and unexpected, things and places. “Upskirt” could be its kissing cousin, though what motivates an older man’s memory is a bit more risque. “Buy Dog Food, Then Go Home” offers an unusual framing device where middle aged men reminiscence, and contrast, their younger and more exciting days against the relative normalcy of their modern selves.
The titular “Offshore Lightning” has a neophyte illustrator and seasoned sex journalist covering an all-female pearl diving puff piece, and stems from Nazuna’s experience illustrating an athletic column for a male-centric newspaper that let her go places most women at the time could not (“the trashiest places”, she would call them, grateful for the opportunity).
The final two stories, “In Captivity” and “House of Solitary Death”, come decades after a period of catastrophic family and personal health issues kept Nazuna from producing new manga. They’re also the longest and most psychologically complex, representing a stunning evolution in Nazuna’s storytelling prowess that could only come from personal hardship.
“In Captivity” intersperses the thoughts of a young manga artist having to confront the realities that come with her mother’s dementia, visualizing her mental deterioration as her memories collapse on themselves. “House of Solitary Death” ups the ante with an overarching look into the lives of people in their twilight years besotted with gossip and contemplating the inevitability of death within a close knit community.
Contrast both with “Countdown”, an earlier story of a younger man (possibly the same journalist from “Offshore Lightning”) dealing with a dying father he struggles to remember as well as he does a random wagtail. In these stories Nazuna’s characters have nothing but their memories to motivate them.
Her exponential maturity in both style and substantive storytelling; even her once-clean lines have become thinner and scratchier, yet somehow more effective and lovely. These may be the collection’s standouts, and a heartbreaking reminder of the power comics can have as a storytelling medium.
Offshore Lightning does something I love, love, love in a collection of older manga stories, which is proper cataloging. We get useful info about every story, including their original publication date and where it was published – which is easy here, since 8 of the ten stories first appeared in indie magazine Hanashi no Tokushu. A superb translation by Alexa Frank’s even imports cultural details, such as the Zenkyoto 1960s student activists, in the footnotes.
All of this is complemented with a wonderful essay by Japanese comics researcher and former Garo editor Mitsuhiro Asakawa, which not only details Saito Nazuna’s early days as a journalist but also shares fascinating biographical details (and photos) of both the artist and her earliest works. Given the tumultuous ebbs and flows of Nazuna’s career and life it would be interesting to see her story illustrated in the same style as her comics, much like that of Yoshihiro Tatsumi (the manga artist who coined the term gekiga).
Not so good is the odd choice of font used to bring Nazuna’s stories into English. It’s way too small, and the choice of font itself (I wasn’t able to identify it, but it’s attributed to fellow Drawn & Quarterly cartoonist Rumi Hara) doesn’t feel appropriate for this type of content. Worse, in most instances the English text only takes up about 2/3 of the word bubbles, which can make dialogue incredibly difficult to read, especially for those on smaller digital devices. In a collection that does everything else so wonderfully right, it’s a shame such a poor choice was made when it comes to legibility.
Tiny font aside, anyone who loves discovering lesser known manga artists should make time for the ten stories in Offshore Lightning, and with Saito Nazuna herself. The work of a mature, confident artist, her stories serve as meditations on both youth and old age, their creator vacillating between the two until art finally, inevitably, imitates reality. The circumstances of Nazuma’s life and career adds a further layer of melancholy to a collection worth your time.