Tonoharu Part One actually begins at the end of the story, with assistant English teacher Daniel Wells leaving his position at a Japanese junior high school after only one year. The reasons for his departure are unclear, but his demeanor is somber and downtrodden, piquing the reader’s interest to find out just what transpired over the course of Daniel’s employment. After this short prologue, the book turns back the clock and picks up at Daniel’s arrival in the rural town of Tonoharu, Japan.
Based in part upon author Lars Martinson’s own experiences as English teacher in Japan, Tonoharu is a brutally honest portrayal of what life can be like for a foreigner in an unfamiliar land. Daniel is the only American in town, and he is cut off from everyone else by cultural and language barriers. To make matters worse, he’s socially awkward, so even when he occasionally comes across other Westerners, he is usually at a loss to effectively relate to them. This particularly complicates things when he makes the acquaintance of Constance, a fellow American and English teacher from a nearby town that he develops unreciprocated romantic feelings for.
Part One of Tonoharu serves to set up the scene and introduce the main characters. Daniel’s day-to-day life is explored, and boy, is it ever dismal. He has trouble adapting to his new setting and ends up spending most of his time alone. He is a lackluster teacher and is often ill-prepared for his lessons. His attempts to reach out to Constance are painful to watch, especially when he tags along to a party she had mentioned to him in passing, only to find out she left with another man. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Daniel because the book taps into emotions we have all felt at some point in our lives. Being an outsider is frightening and difficult, and Daniel’s particular situation is an extreme example of such a scenario.
The second part of Tonoharu is much more story-driven, and it introduces new complications to Daniel’s already-troubled existence. He becomes physically involved with one of the Japanese teachers at his school who begins to seek a relationship with him, although he doesn’t reciprocate her interest because he is still obsessed with Constance. He makes a friend of sorts who turns out to only be concerned with borrowing money and having sex with Japanese girls. It seems like the more Daniel attempts to form connections to others, the further detached he becomes. Even though he may not share the same language and culture of most everyone around him, it is ultimately his own shortcomings that cut him off from the rest of the world.
There is a superfluous subplot concerning a group of mysterious, wealthy Europeans who live in Tonoharu and fund obscure artistic projects. Like Daniel, they are isolated from the rest of the residents, though in their case it is by their own choice. Even though these characters have a place in Tonuharu’s overall plot, Martinson may have been better off leaving them out. Tonoharu works so well as a straightforward examination of the secluded life of a feeble American in rural Japan, and the story simply becomes unnecessarily complicated and confusing with the inclusion of these additional characters. Hopefully their role in the storyline will prove to have more meaning and impact when Part Three of Tonoharu is released.
However, it might be some time before we see the third installment in the saga of Daniel Wells. Because Tonoharu is painstakingly rendered in an arresting cross-hatched style that is clearly a labor of love for Martinson, each volume is years in the making. Martinson chose to construct Tonoharu’s world devoid of color, which further aides in expressing the themes of loneliness and seclusion. The amount of detail on every page is astounding, no matter if the artwork depicts a massive and elaborate parade float or Daniel watching television alone in his small apartment. Meanwhile, the character designs are a sharp contrast to the minutely detailed backdrops, consisting of human caricatures with features such as oversized noses and dots for eyes. Somehow this juxtaposition works brilliantly and brings Daniel and the rest of the cast to the forefront, even if readers will still want to take some time to fully enjoy the scenery.
Though at times Tonoharu’s plot becomes a little more convoluted than I feel it needs to be, I still found both volumes of the series to be thoroughly absorbing and intriguing, and I believe most adult readers will do the same. I was able to make personal connections to many of the situations Daniel was going through, even if my own life experiences have been very different. Tonoharu’s intoxicating artwork is practically strong enough to capture and hold readers’ attention on its own, though thankfully it doesn’t have to do so since the book’s underlying themes are superbly executed. It will be interesting to see how Daniel’s life in Japan continues to play out, and though I appreciate and understand the time required for Martinson to create such breathtaking works of art, it will be a difficult wait for Part Three’s release.