The young Sakura – known to her friends as Momo-chan – secretly longs to be a manga artist / writer, but suffers from a chronic lack of motivation, not to mention being fundamentally shy and anti-social. Life – which in the small Shizuoka town where she lives is already slow enough – has a tendency to pass her by, and she is invariably happier watching TV in the lounge or drawing pictures in her bedroom than she is going out or even going to school.
This isn’t such a big deal when Momo-chan is at elementary school, but by the time she enters high school, her peers are putting more and more pressure on her to be sociable, and she is heaping more and more guilt on herself for failing to do so. For their high school club activity, Momo-chan and her best friend Tama-chan choose the physics club, purely on the basis that it will give them the most leeway to skive off, and having somehow managed to obtain a ham radio licence – the only pre-requisite to joining – they stop going altogether. Being a girls’ high school, the end-of-year open day is one of the few opportunities they will get to meet boys, but the prospect of mixing with so many strangers proves too terrifying for Momo-chan, who sneaks away and spends the day watching TV with her father instead.
In a way that reminded me of Terry Zwigoff’s wonderful film Ghost World (coincidentally adapted from a comic strip), Hitorizumo perfectly captures that mood of teenage inertia that anyone who grew up in a small town will recognise only too well. In one memorable sequence, Momo-chan spends an eagerly anticipated New Year’s holiday with her auntie and cousins in Tokyo, but rather than promenading along the fashionable shopping streets of Harajuku or bumping into celebrities, she instead goes to a temple – something that she would have done in Shizuoka in any case – and gets an attack of diarrhea after eating some dodgy spaghetti.
Momo-chan’s mother is infuriated by almost everything her daughter does – or rather, by the many things she fails to do – and spends almost the entire book telling her off. Her father, on the other hand, is the exact opposite, always taking his daughter’s side in an argument and never putting any pressure on her to change her lazy ways. The couple run a grocery store, and while Momo-chan’s mother busies herself with the housework, as soon as the shop shuts, her father seems to spend the entire time in front of the TV, a plate of sushi and a glass of beer within easy reach.
It looks for all the world as if Momo-chan will simply drift through life – maybe go to university, maybe get an office job, maybe get married and maybe have children – but at the last possible moment, with her mother’s frustration reaching fever pitch, Momo-chan realises that if she doesn’t act now, her long-held and still secret ambition will forever remain unfulfilled.
In the event, her mother still isn’t satisfied, as Momo-chan goes from sleeping late, neglecting her school work and staying up all night watching TV, to sleeping late, neglecting her school work and staying up all night drawing manga. Her strategy works, though, and this is the point at which the significance of all that inertia becomes clear. In the process of submitting her work to the teen magazine Ribbon (whose website, incidentally, is possibly the most blindingly garish I have ever seen), Momo-chan discovers that she has a unique talent for relating her childhood experiences in essays and manga, and what the reader discovers is that through all those years of apparent inactivity, she has been observing and absorbing, storing those experiences up ready for the day she will re-tell them as fiction.
The happy ending to the book is that after many months of work, Momo-chan at last has one of her pieces published in her beloved Ribbon, and the happy ending beyond the book is that Sakura went on to become one of the most successful manga artists in the country: the TV adaptation of Chibi Maruko-Chan (which Mrs M used to read when she was still at school), is broadcast on Fuji Television in a prime-time slot every Sunday evening, alongside the national institution that is Sazaé-San (both are light-hearted, soap opera-like dissections of Japanese family life).
The great thing about Hitorizumo is that beneath its veneer of girly cuteness lie all the turbulent emotions of adolescence, and all the triumphs and disappointments of an artist trying to find her voice. I defy anyone not to be moved by Momo-chan’s disappointment when the first manga she sends to Ribbon fails to get a commendation, or by her final farewell with Tama-chan, who flies off to university in America, and I defy anyone not to cringe with recognition when she falls madly in love with a boy she never even has the courage to speak to, or when she chickens out when presented with a golden opportunity to talk to her favourite comedian (in that sense, Hitorizumo is a reassuring read for anyone who has ever felt that life has passed them by: don’t worry, Sakura seems to be saying, there will be another chance).
The unhappy ending to this blog entry is that Hitorizumo is only available in Japanese, although if anyone out there fancies giving me some cash and permission to take a few weeks’ sabbatical, I’d be more than happy to start work on a translation.