Review of Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō (1994)

Sequential art with text

Ashinano Hitoshi (writer-artist).

Read in 2020.

Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.
— Edgar Allan Poe, “The City in the Sea” (1831)

Drifting sands and recovering forests slowly creep over the old roads. Not many ruins are still visible. The risen sea erodes the new coast of Musashino, once a suburb of Tokyo. The street lights still come on at night, beneath the ocean waves. The place is no longer called 武蔵野市 (Musashino City) as it was in 1994, but 武蔵野国, the Country of Musashino, perhaps in a nod to the medieval fief it used to be.

There are children, but not very many. One by one, towns across the land are disappearing, but not from violence or any obvious disease. The climate is pleasant, aside from the odd typhoon. The wondrous biotechnology and robotics of the old world can be ghostly, but they are not dangerous. The land is at peace. Gasoline is still available, though demand is in decline. The economy has lost its frenzied quality. People are making do and recycling. They are not rebuilding the old world.

A woman runs a café, sitting down to chat with her few customers. She is a bubbly, friendly sort, but does not get lonely. On idle days, she enjoys nature’s resurgence and the numinous remnants of the past. In her era of human twilight, there is justice, gentleness and joy.

In the 1840s, when Franz Berwald composed his fourth symphony, he initially called it “Sinfonie naïve”, then regretted the choice. He probably feared it would be misunderstood. The symphony is not naïve in the sense of being ignorant, but in the sense of being unaffected and uncomplicated, somewhat in contrast to Berwald’s first, which he called the “Sinfonie sérieuse”.

“Yokohama kaidashi kikō” is a silly title, too. Word by word, it means “Yokohama shopping travelogue”. Neither shopping nor other dopamine kicks are central to the narrative. The series first appeared in Monthly Afternoon for 12 years, progressing roughly in real time, amassing 14 collected volumes, or 10 in the second edition. There is a plot to show for it, but that’s not the point. This comic is a masterpiece of utopian science fiction, not in its setting or dialogue but in its mood. Pacing and composition are top notch. The characters are varied, the speech bubbles few. There’s comedy and friendship, there’s a little bit of romance and mystery, and there’s the bitter sweetness of growing up in an uncertain time of great freedom. It’s a hopeful, wholesome comic about living well. Like Berwald’s fourth symphony, it’s deliberately naïve.

The main character, Alpha, is a gynoid. Incongruously, she once had someone she called Owner, though gynoids are free, not slaves. The science fiction is so soft that she was somehow made, or at least programmed, using some of her human creators’ most savoured subjective experiences. This makes her practically a physical incarnation of the good in life, and a walking tombstone to humankind. She’s got the bizarre hair and eye colours of 1990s manga, and slim, childlike hips. Her micro-adventures are not always cute but they are heartwarming, whether it’s trying out her best friend’s new electric scooter or taking cover to safely roast a huge GMO chestnut. To stock up on supplies, she sometimes gets on her scooter to go shopping in nearby towns, hence the title.

Several of the other characters, particularly the marginal ones, are old. Many of them are stylized, dwarf-like in the same unfortunate, stereotypifying manner as Takahashi Rumiko’s elders, but there’s more dignity to it here. It may be a meditation upon the real Japan’s ageing population. Death is present, though not shown. Acceptance of the inevitable is everywhere.

Ashinano’s landscapes are relaxing and uplifting, but they are bright and airy, not like the grandiose pastorals of Albert Bierstadt, nor like Berwald’s Romantic music. It’s easy to characterize Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō by what it’s not, because it’s original. It is art, unpretentious and drawn entirely in a commercial medium. It is the art of negative space—in the sense of yohaku—and positive peace. In the very middle of the series, there are personally worrying developments for Alpha, and no easy answers. The series is not saccharine, but there’s a positive charge to its uneventfulness, especially as it relates to the high-pressure society of the real Japan. It is almost literally a grass-roots protest against needless stress.

The series’ post-apocalypse is lyrical, neither dramatic nor epic. It is far removed from both action-oriented apocalyptic SF and from “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937). It sells anarchism even better than Always Coming Home (1985): Instead of arduously constructing an elaborate pseudophilosophy like Le Guin, Ashinano makes it look easy to percolate a bit of Daoism, a bit of Shinto, a sprinkle of hedonism, generous portions of faith in humanity and mono no aware, and a love of nature. In one of the last chapters, Alpha thinks she may travel but, she says, she will always come home.

Ashinano and Le Guin use the same basic trick to achieve their respective utopias: Pandora’s “killing the babies” by unknown means, cleanly removing overpopulation and therefore conflict over natural resources. One of the recurring motifs is the “Taapon”, a gigantic high-altitude plane circling the Earth since before the apocalypse. It cannot land. Like the people of Aniara (1956), its crew cannot be relieved. They accept their fate and look below. From what they see, though there are still bustling cities, it’s possible that humankind is doomed. If so, our extinction would be a loss, and nature would go on. It’s a real feat to argue aesthethically for something so big and so selfless through the cozy story of a little café.

References here: Blame (1997), Aria: The Animation (2005), “AI’s Story” (2006), “Tideline” (2007), “Robot on the Road” (2015), Japan Sinks: 2020 (2020).

sequential art text fiction series