Tonoharu: Excellent graphic novel about an English teacher in Japan


It took me a long time to get around to reading Tonoharu: Part One, Lars Martinson's graphic novel about a young American who gets a job as an English teaching assistant in a small Japanese town. I'm so glad I did, though, because its incredibly good. It reads like an autobiography. Martinson actually did work in Japan as an English teacher, so I'm sure parts of the story are based on his experiences.*

Published in 2008, and a winner of the prestigious Xeric Award, Tonoharu is a story of isolation, frustration, and mystery, with just the right amount of black humor to keep it from being depressing. Dan Wells, the main character, is a recent college graduate who gets a job at a junior high school in the town of Tonoharu. The teachers and staff at the school are mostly standoffish, and because his contract requires him to stay on campus all day even when he has nothing to do, the resulting boredom combined with the language and cultural barrier are at times almost unbearable. The few foreigners that Dan gets to know are too weird to connect with in a meaningful way. And an American girl he meets and becomes smitten with seems to want to have as little to do with him as possible.

As time goes on, Dan establishes something of a social network (including an affair with a female teacher at his school who visits his apartment to have sex with him), and he is introduced to a baffling family of seemingly wealthy Europeans living in an old Buddhist temple.

This book is just the first part in a series of forthcoming graphic novels about Tonoharu. Martinson kindly sent me an uncorrected proof of Tonoharu: Part Two, which I devoured immediately. It's coming out in December. He told me he's half way finished with the third book. It's slow going, because of the exquisite cross hatching he uses, but the overall effect is stunning.

I can't recommend Tonoharu highly enough.

Buy Tonoharu: Book One on Amazon

Sample panels after the jump.

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*In 1987 I worked as an English teacher in Tokyo for four or five months, and this story dredged a few memories. In Martinson's book, the main character isn't given much guidance by his employers in preparing to teach his students. Similarly, the English school I worked at would not give me a textbook or lesson plan, and when I asked if I could buy the text book, they told me they had no copies to sell me. I was expected to teach the lessons in the book without knowing what they were! It was really weird and uncomfortable to be standing in front of 20 tuition-paying people hoping to learn English and me having no idea what to do. I ended up quitting soon after. They owners of the school were furious at me. Go figure. (I ended up getting a job at an English conversation coffee house which was so much fun I would have done it for free.)