Images of Alienation in Adrien Tomine’s “Translated, from the Japanese,”
The bullet train shoots through Tokyo. Snow sidles down from the hazy ochre sky above the electrical wires, and the muted scene expresses a world in winter. Cold seeps off the page. The handwritten text that hovers far above the drab cityscape (in a sky that takes up 4/5 of the page) is close and so neat it’s almost right- as well as left-justified. It clearly expresses, like the scene, a heart in winter. The text begins a circumspect and somewhat cagey second-person narration indicating that the speaker is a parent, taking her child to California against the wishes of her family. But we get a sense of distance and loneliness from this first panel, a sense that the text alone doesn’t reveal. Or perhaps that the visual of the text reveals. Though she mentions people, this world is free of them. The only life in the image is the life of machines.
Tomine blends clarity in word and image with mystery, and this has something to do with the way the words and images interact. The images are meticulously drawn, and evoke a certain kind of commercial art. They feel vaguely instructional, like the diagrams that show airplane passengers how to disembark in case of a water landing. Perhaps that’s what this story is: a representation of a state of emergency, carefully rendered, but about which its characters are in denial, and toward which their hearts are frozen. The words throughout the… (what do we call this? A graphic short story? A series of vignettes? A visual haiku? I can’t find an apt term) …the words throughout the piece acknowledge some form of confusion and heartbreak, but mother and child interact with people in nearly every panel in a normal, neighborly way. The Osaka professor sitting next to the child on the plane is kind and generous, and we get quite a bit of detail about him in the text; the stewardess mistakes him for the speaker’s husband, and when they disembark, he becomes again the stranger that he was before the flight; the child’s father, from whom, we learn, the speaker is estranged, embraces the child and has made arrangements for the two of them to stay in California; the family drives together, eats together, and the speaker makes reference to the birthday party the child will enjoy the following day. But juxtaposed with the images, this text betrays the speaker’s internal loneliness, which her interactions with the other characters cannot penetrate. Combined with the images, the text shows us a world of precision and cleanliness, but an empty world, a world of supreme isolation, bereft of humanity. We get no faces on the plane, just physical details of the space and the tops of heads. When our speaker reports that the professor “laughed very much at the strange things you said” (Tomine 77) all we see is an airplane tray table littered with candy and a notebook; when she asks the man to look after the child, we see the overhead baggage compartment, and in the bottom left corner the top of someone’s head; the closest we come to seeing the child is his/her arm, clutching a child’s blanket, while in a separate seat the speaker holds a cup of coffee, cut off by the image border. When our speaker looks at the world, the story suggests, she sees only fragments of objects, the gorgeous heartache of everyday things. In this way the images defy their verisimilitude: they appear true to life visually, but, filtered through the speaker’s emotional state, they have been unpeopled to an unrealistic degree. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud analyzes the way abstraction takes us out of the real world: “By de-emphasizing the appearance of the physical world in favor of the idea of form,” he says, “the cartoon places itself in the world of concepts. Through traditional realism the comics artist can portray the world without… and through the cartoon the world within” (41). In this case, however, we are confronted with extreme realism in the images, but with elisions we can’t square with realism. The speaker’s mind rejects the people around her. But does she admit that to us when she speaks? She can’t. This character is crippled by her inability to get through the frozen landscape of her emotions, and the world she observes reflects her inner state. This cognitive dissonance foreshadows the revelation on the final page.
The barely-perceptible shadow of death lurks here and the devil, as always, is in the details. The second-to-last panel is of a light fixture, seen from below. The lamp’s cover is missing, exposing its innards. There are fittings for two bulbs, but only one bulb present. “I fell asleep in my clothes on the floor beside you,” says the narrator, “listening to the sound of your breath” (Tomine 81). The fixture, we assume, is what she’s looking at as she lies there awake beside her sleeping child. Reporting about a broken marriage and an impending abandonment, what her brain registers is a broken object with two of its parts missing. The story that is implied in this image is not the one the narrator tells us (that two things will soon be missing from her own life). McCloud says that, “The platonic ideal of the cartoon may seem to omit much of the ambiguity and complex characterization which are the hallmarks of modern literature, leaving them suitable only for children. But simple elements can combine in complex ways… great power is locked in [a] few simple lines. Releasable only by the reader’s mind” (45). Tomine’s brown-drab world has, if anything, more complexity than a true-to-life image would. His images, combined with his words, show, experientially, a very specific mind in crisis, a coy mind, a mind struggling with the unnameable.
We are left with the most beautiful panel in the piece. A view of San Francisco, at night, green fog rolling in above a city warm with lights. But we, the speaker and the reader, are on the other side of an unbridgeable divide: the dead, dark-olive Bay separates us from the life on the other side. Eight stars peek out above the cityscape. Here we get the revelation that the images foreshadowed: “I wonder how old you are now,” says the speaker. “How long have I been gone?” (82). She is no longer with her child. There is the same clarity… and the same mystery. Is she dead? Has she hidden the note for the child to find? Why doesn’t she know her child’s age? We, like the speaker, are exiled, on the other side of the cold Bay—a divide as metaphorical as it is literal—and our hearts remain in winter.
I highly recommend Adrian Tomine's collection of illustrated short stories from which this story comes, titled Killing and Dying.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1993. Print
Tomine, Adrian. Killing and Dying. US: Drawn and Quarterly, Client Publisher of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 2015. Print