Although he’s since stepped back from media appearances, Naoto Matsumura is someone you may have heard of in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. He’s the man who stayed behind in his community as the lone human, tasking himself with caring for all of the animals left behind in the human evacuation of the area. For animal rescuers, this almost feels like a given: animals are people too (metaphorically), and the refusal of the evacuators to allow refugees from the disaster to bring their pets could feel like a dealbreaker, at least from afar. After all, these are domestic animals – we’ve made them dependent on humans, so abandoning them is tantamount to a death sentence, even without radiation as a factor. Matsumura only says that aloud once, but that it’s something he feels strongly about is beautifully evident in each panel where he interacts with the animals left behind, and when his family initially evacuates, the news that Aki, his dog, can’t come with lands with a physical impact.
The animal rescue aspect is a major part of the book. There are some scenes of dead animals, mainly livestock, that Matsumura can’t reach in time. The artwork and the included news photos at the end of the volume have images of starving pets and livestock, so if you’re sensitive to that, be warned. Primarily, however, the animal sections of the book strive to paint a hopeful picture of Matsumura’s work: he drives around towns to look for abandoned pets, feeds them, and brings them back to his farm to care for them. When the government sends in a team of veterinarians to euthanize the left-behinds, Matsumura drives them off, refusing to relinquish their lives that he has worked so hard to save while castigating them for only showing up now, when coming earlier would have saved more lives. All of this does make a scene of him smoking in the barn a little odd – by 2011, farmers I know had stopped that for safety reasons – but his smoking does serve to highlight part of the reason he tells others he’s not concerned about the effects of the radiation; he’s aware of its carcinogenic effects, and he’s made his peace with it.
The book’s most striking feature is how it uses Japanese folklore as a metaphor for Matsumura’s experience. While mention is made of Nomazu, the giant catfish whose restless thrashing causes earthquakes, the real meat of the metaphor is in the tale of Urashima Taro. As you may recall, this folktale tells the story of a fisherman who saves a turtle and is rewarded with the hand of the daughter of the Sea King. He lives with her beneath the waves but grows lonely for his family on the shore. The princess allows him to return, giving him a treasure box he is forbidden to open. When Taro arrives on land, however, he finds that hundreds of years have passed and everyone he knew is long dead. When he opens the treasure box, all those years are returned to him, and he ages in moments. Grolleau adds in the yokai Akashita, a monster typically appearing as a dark cloud. Akashita becomes the radiation from the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, creeping through the abandoned towns. At the same time, Matsumura is Urashima Taro himself, staying behind in a world that is no longer the one that he has known for most of his life. While later scenes of irradiated and starving yokai asking Matsumura for help don’t quite work as well (were the book two volumes rather than one, it might have, but there isn’t enough space to develop this idea) but the use of Urashima Taro is very effective.
Ewan Blain’s full-color artwork, which draws on Miyazaki’s films and Shigeru Mizuki‘s manga, is much more typical of bandes-desinées, or BD, the style of comic art native to France and Belgium. While other French comics have certainly been translated into English, Guardian of Fukushima is an unusual choice for a manga publisher to bring over; ABLAZE’s upcoming release of Wakfu is, for example, much more typical of what those publishers typically choose. Again, this shouldn’t deter you from picking this up, but it might not look quite like what you expect. It allows for the magic realism of the piece to come through very nicely, and some of the details that would get left out, such as a brief shot of Matsumura bathing with a glimpse of his pubic hair or the skeletal nature of a starving calf, really do help ground the work in reality. That’s something that the writer seeks to do as well, with the tsunami viewed from the high ground simultaneously seeming slow and fast, the ways people lied (or at least fudged the details) about the power plant initially, and an old woman bleakly recalling Hiroshima after the explosions at the plant.
If there’s one thing that risks turning readers away from this book, it’s the fact that Stu Levy of Tokyopop infamy is very much present in the front and end matter. He’s a divisive figure among manga readers. While some of us may recoil from the obviousness of his involvement in bringing this volume to English-language audiences, it’s honestly worth ignoring any antipathy you may feel for him, skipping his intro and outro, and still reading Guardian of Fukushima. Fabian Grolleau and Ewan Blain created this book for a French publisher, and it’s a well-done work.
Guardian of Fukushima is both hopeful and hopeless all at once. The tragedies are painted as a terrible combination of natural and manufactured disasters, with a strong message that nuclear power is not the way to go. It’s not a book that seeks to make sense of what happened but shows one man’s attempt to reckon with it. It’s a challenging read, but it is a good one.