I do not like the subgenre called “slice of life.” Oh there’s nothing wrong with the portrayal of the everyday mundane, but too often (read: almost every time) creators in virtually every entertainment medium pick up the name and heft it over their heads as a tower shield against arrows of oh-so-ridiculous criticism claiming stories need to have “plot,” “structure” and, can you believe it, “a point.” No, these champions of slice of life reply with puff-chested gusto, you philistines have got it all wrong, these projects are all about vibe, got it?
Undercurrent is not one of those projects, and manga author Tetsuya Toyoda is not one of those creators. Rather than use the comic as a thinly veiled excuse to make some quick scratch off what amounts to a collection of practice-round background sketches boondoggled with a “story” that amounts to the Japanese equivalent of Andy Griffith gee-whiz vibe, Toyoda flexes artistic and story writing muscles modern manga probably didn’t even know it had.
The premise to 2005’s Undercurrent starts off mundane enough: Kanae runs a small-town bathhouse with the help of her husband and a friend. At least she used to until her husband disappeared one day without a trace or a word to anyone. As the police investigation begins to taper off and her mind settles on the fact that she’ll very likely never see him alive again, Kanae decides to reopen the bathhouse and get back to work. The only problem is she needs someone qualified to operate the bath’s antiquated wood-burning incinerator.
Undercurrent is quick to drop in the hook of the missing husband, letting the reader know this comic actually has a story with real implications and stakes to tell(factor in that it has but a single volume in which to tell its tale and it’s obvious there is no intent to tarry). That’s what separates this slice from the pie. Toyoda’s slice forgoes the empty calories of sentimentalism and white-washed nostalgia and knifes into heartier, better-balanced fare.
Underneath the genial, slightly corn pone surface of daily life in Toyoda’s comics lies a darker side of the equation; a world rarely just or fair, never pleasant, but which always rings true and does not wallow in bathos. Goggles, a one-shot story by Toyoda about two male roommates babysitting a friend’s taciturn daughter, starts out as an airy trip through summertime in suburban Tokyo only to have reality, with all its ugly bits, rear its head to remind one character, and the readers, that it ain’t all braised tofu and water fountains. Undercurrent is no exception. The twin plot threads of Kanae’s missing, possibly dead, husband and the difficulties of keeping the bathhouse open affect the characters in a place deeper than an oversized sweat droplet, though you get those too.
The stakes are not huge, never ceding feasibility to seek ever-growing scope a la Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, that other fake-out slice-of-life comic that recursively builds back upon its initially mundane trappings again and again to turn into something that, by the end, approaches the slightly ridiculous. Toyoda keeps his camera lens focused on no more than half a dozen characters or so. Only two of them are permanent fixtures in the plot, and of those two the reader is only privy to the inner life of one, Kanae the bathhouse manager.
It’s a testament to Toyoda’s characterization chops that he can work within such a narrow scope and never once have it feel claustrophobic or inconsequential. The secret–I’ll let you in on the secret here, modern manga–is characters that think, act and react realistically, believably, like, well, actual human beings would.
I’m about to call Tetsuya Toyoda the neo-realist of seinen manga right here. Characters in Undercurrent are realistic to a startling degree, down to the elderly gossipers who frequent the bathhouse not knowing whether Kanae is cuckold or widowed to a disappearing man (who “was always such a nice boy!”), but rattling off their theories amongst themselves anyways. People do not collapse into hysterical wrecks at the drop of a hat (or bathrobe) or stand there with dead, watery Rei Ayanami eyes, content to watch Rome burn as they strum the harp to their concerto of self-pity. Instead the reader gets some of the deepest range of emotion seen in manga. When, and if, a character breaks down or flies off the handle, there’s a damn good, damn believable reason as to why.
Credit must be given to the sharp art style in conveying that realism in both setting and character. Toyoda crafts comics with a film expert’s attention to perspective and visual depth. Here is a modern Japanese manga creator whose cinematic comics are better than most modern Japanese cinema. Undercurrent is drawn in a style that approaches minimalism, but is more like “economy.” Originally I thought the slightly airy style was Toyoda’s trademark, but I took a look at Goggles and saw lavish attention to detail in both background and character. Not to say Undercurrent is ugly, Toyoda’s economical style is such that it seems he knows the exact minimum amount of lines and strokes necessary to perfectly convey an emotion. Like the best filmmakers, he is an adept at framing a scene and knowing the utility of perspective and, strangely enough for a comic, sound and lack thereof.
At one point Kanae makes an awkward, out of practice attempt to move on past her husband only to get shot down. Her frustration, depicted in a single small panel, is true to life and hilarious. Without any overbearing dialog or monolog except the drone of ambient noise creeping across the panels, Toyoda depicts the amount of daily physical labor it takes to keep a slightly archaic bathhouse up and running. The reader’s appreciation for the characters grows only more.
Tetsuya Toyoda, you are enigma to me. I can hardly find any English-language biographical information on you, only that Francophones apparently like you. Undercurrent ran in French anthology Kana, won a nomination in this year’s Angoulême International Comics Festival and a pick from Belgian paper Le Soir on its list of best comics of 2008. Are you a former film student? The elegance of “camera” motion in your comics would suggest as much. Are you angling for a movie deal? The real question is if your readership can blame you for it. I doubt the advance checks from Afternoon are sufficient to pay the rent.
What I do know is that this guy doesn’t have a single official release in the English-speaking world, and that’s a shame. Undercurrent, with its subtlety, attention to detail and dedication to realism, is one of those short works you can show to someone who does not like comic books, a dying breed in Japanacomics. Viz, if you can bring over goddamn Tokyo Flow Chart as a Signature title, you can definitely bring over an artiste like Tetsuya Toyoda. Come on now.