Tonoharu

About a week ago, I was at a JET related event, and one of the other attendees made mention of the following books: Tonoharu.

Tonoharu is a graphic novel series written by a former JET, and is loosely based on his own experiences while teaching abroad for 3 years. The author, Lars Martinson, taught from 2003 to 2006 in Fukuoka, Japan. I assume he means Fukuoka prefecture, and not Fukuoka city. The story is set in the small fictional town of Tonoharu, and mentions its about an hour away from any major city.

Prologue

Before we get into the actual story of Tonoharu, Lars starts everything off in the prologue. These several pages focus on Lars himself as he nears the end of his first year contract. He reflects on the past 8 months of his stay in Japan, and wonders whether or not to renew. The life hasn't been what he expected, and he's had several challenges to face he wasn't prepared for.

I think this section is rather brilliant, because through explaining his own situation, we're also introduced to the actual characters in the book. He also foreshadowing all the events to happen over the course of the 3 book series as well. All things I didn't pay attention to at all until I read it a second time.

Part One

The main character in Tonoharu is Dan Welles, and he is Lars' predecessor. The story focuses on Dan's experience teaching abroad. It begins with Dan meeting his own predecessor, and attending his welcoming party. It continues with Dan's first classes at his school, and giving his self-introduction class lesson. And it expands on Dan's character, and introduces several other characters too.

The story throughout Part One seems like a pretty good introduction to the type of situations one would have when teaching English in Japan's grade school system. I guess it's implied that Dan is in the JET Programme, but it's never directly referenced. Also, given that Lars' started JET in 2003, I'm assuming that this is supposed to take place in 2002. I'm not sure why Dan doesn't have a cellphone, or why he never researches anything on a computer. This ain't the 90s.

Dan is a completely fictional character. Well... at least, I really hope he's completely fictional. Dan is an unconfident unprepared unmotivated person. He doesn't seem to have any hobbies, or desires, or any real personality. He kind of acts like some people I used to know...

At first, I figured the guy was just shy. I consider myself a little bit shy, so I can relate, and being thrown into certain situations can make me very nervous, and seemingly uninteresting, or boring, or whatever. So, at the beginning, I figured Dan was just adjusting to the new culture and taking things slow.

But he never pulls himself out of this rut. I don't think he's too afraid to branch out, he just doesn't know how to. I guess he does try asking people about what things to do, and he tries to make friends with people... and they all blow him off. But he just stops at that point. He feels like all of his avenues are cut off, so he doesn't know how to take care of himself.

...and as such, he gets even more depressed.

This guy is basically the Charlie Brown of the JET Programme. Nothing seems to go his way, and he keeps taking all the shit that life gives him.

Part Two

Part Two represents a bit of a change for the series. It still focuses on Dan, and his incredible unmotivated depression, but expands on all the characters introduced in Part One. In fact, I think Lars spends way too much time on the character interactions that the uniqueness of this taking place in Japan seems to fade away. I guess that could represent that over time all the things that seem unique and interesting become normal and mundane because you're used to them.

But he's really building a story. I think the down to earth nature of the comic is absolutely it's strong point, he really needs a story, and I think that's when the fictiveness of the entire series starts breaking the reality a bit. Now we have the kooky rich europeans that the whole town hates. And the stereotypical "playboy" who sleeps with all kinds of women. And a love interest too! though that trope felt very natural in its execution.

Overall, I think it's still very good. And the art is really unique too. It's very simple and straightforward like a typical newspaper comic, but has an incredible amount of detail and complexity when it needs it.

Part Three

This is a 3 part graphic novel series, and, at the moment, only two volumes have been finished. He's definitely working on the final book of the series. In a semi-recent blog post he mentions that he's a third of the way complete!

Also, reading through Lars' blog, it seems that he's back in Japan again, and he's been writing a web comic series about his current misadventures entitled the Kameoka Dairies. This series is much more direct about specific subjects he's come across from daily life in Japan, rather than building an all encompassing story.

Overall

This series does feel a bit negative about the experiences one might have when teaching English in Japan, but after taking a hard look at the main character, it feels like he's done this to himself. If you're active, know how to ask questions, and have motivation to get the most out of life, I don't think you'd have as rough a time as our pal Dan did.

I think if you've ever been in JET, or are interested in joining JET, this book series is a must read.




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