One of my favorite graphic novels of all time is I Kill Giants, not only for its powerful story, but its evocative and moving artwork. What does that have to do with Henshin, you wonder? Well, Ken Niimura, of course! He was the artist of I Kill Giants and this is his first book printed in English since then. In Henshin, Niimura weaves together multiple short stories showing the reader a side of Tokyo they’ve not seen before: a lonely girl discovering herself, a young child with superpowers, and a rather…eccentric uncle.
The book is read in typically manga-style fashion, back to front (at least in the European sense.) Niimura’s writing in the series is often sparse, like his artwork, but conveys a great deal of emotion that builds during the story….although sometimes it doesn’t translate so well to English. This isn’t the fault of Niimura, but more that he writes about customs and humor that would be familiar to Japanese readers, but that require a bit more effort at times for English readers to understand. Overall though, most of the time the story shines through, making for a delightful read.
Niimura shares the story of his characters in short, but moving vignettes. Each showcasing different aspects of life, such as moving to a new and unfamiliar city, experiencing growing old, experiencing loss for the first time. Each vignette is relatable to the reader because even though the characters are in a different part of the world, its something that we’ve all had experience dealing with in our life.
His lines are spare, but evocative easily conveying emotion and the character’s thoughts in simple linework depicting the squint of an eye or the quirk of an eyebrow. Expression lines are also used to great effect, to show running or fear for the characters. Niimura uses the backgrounds just as effectively, often just a few lines to give us a building or the stripe on a baseball field. But when the backgrounds are slightly more complex, such as the equipment in a hospital room, Niimura continues to use sparse lines, just putting together the shape of what needs to be in the room for effect, without overwhelming the story.
My favorite story in this collection is actually the first one. A young woman travelling to live with her aunt and uncle for a while. She’s quiet. Like really, really quiet. Doesn’t say anything, but has the subtle air that something has happened and gone wrong. Perhaps she’s seen too much and needs to hide for a while. Her uncle comes off as that goofy, somewhat eccentric uncle that has a heart of gold. And then you find out…well, maybe he isn’t as goofy as we think he is.
The best readalike for this book, at least in terms of art style, would be I Kill Giants. In terms of story, at least for some of the stories in this collection, would be Yotsuba&!, which has the same sense of eccentricity and fun that Henshin does, even though it is aimed at a somewhat younger audience. Henshin‘s content would be appropriate for most teen readers, but it will likely appeal most to adult readers.
by Ken Niimura