Thursday, December 5, 2019

31 Days Of CCS #5: Sam Nakahira

Sam Nakahira is a young but prolific cartoonist who has already published a lot of comics heading into her first year at the Center for Cartoon Studies. That includes a 100+ page graphic memoir/journalism and several minicomics as she seeks to find her voice as an artist. This is still very much a work in progress, especially from a visual perspective, but all of the building blocks are there. Much of her work to date centers on different aspects of being a fourth-generation Japanese-American. A Japanese Doll is a sparse and poetic meditation on how Americans went from having a friendship doll exchange in the early 20th century to virulent hatred when Pearl Harbor came around. Patriotism quickly mutated into racist jingoism, with a twisted fury turned on Japanese-Americans; this comic notes how the way in which there was a run on destroying these dolls reflected the ways in which Japanese women were thought of us quiet and subservient.

Nakahira's anger is even sharper and more pronounced in Not Your Oriental Fantasy. Here, she calls out the ways in which the fetishization of Asian women is little more than a control fantasy; again, there's that passive doll imagery. Nakahira talks about the trend in America in the last century of Japanese war brides and the idea that they'd be passive, but Nakahira instead notes their powerful agency. They were willing to walk away from their home country, and they were willing to walk away when things got dark in America. Nakahira's use of shadow and imagery is powerful in this comic, viscerally supporting her ideas with a few key images on each page. That clarity of layout was essential in getting her points across.

Disconnection is about a college friend who was otherwise intelligent but was unable to perceive racism either against her (as someone of East Asian descent) or in general. It's a function of privilege and being unable to see how that privilege warps one's worldview. Nakahira admits at the end that she wasn't really sure where she was going with this comic other than to voice frustration with this person on paper, and it shows in how the visuals didn't really add much to the story.

The Astrologer is a different kind of experiment for Nakahira, as she eschews her simpler storytelling techniques and opts for a more poetic and visually dense style. This is fiction about an astrologer who's fading further and further away from reality and her family. Some of the images, especially on the first few pages, are striking in the way Nakahira blends foreground and background images. The shadowy form of the astrologer blending in with the shadows of the night sky is especially beautiful. The more mundane images at the end feel stiff and bland in comparison, and part of this is because Nakahira doesn't quite have a grip on body language and how bodies relate to each other in space.

Her most ambitious comic is Bill's Quiet Revolution, a work of memoir and journalism that delves into the grocer Bill Fujimoto, who was one of the source suppliers for the California Cuisine farm-to-fork revolution. The story begins with Nakahira eating with her mother and openly wondering about how much culture she's lost and how much has suppressed thanks to Japanese people being sent to concentration camps in the US. That was a zero event that affected the lives of every Japanese-American person in the United States at the time and one that still resonates today. In particular, her mom noted that it wasn't uncommon for Japanese-Americans to deliberately distance themselves from their culture; in their case, it meant identifying with Japanese-Hawaiian culture.

That was the background that led Nakahira to discover Bill Fujimoto, who inherited and expanded his father's business as a produce grocer in Northern California. The fascinating thing about the practice is the intersection between capitalism and art. For Fujimoto, the goal wasn't to simply sell as much stuff as possible. Instead, it was to sell the right things and knowing what that meant. In many respects, he was a produce critic and editor, which meant that he was constantly looking for new and interesting small farms and for the freshest, most interesting produce. It meant understanding weather, soil, and many other trends. What he didn't realize is that he was at the center of not just a local food revolution, but the beginning of a trend that would extend not just to restaurants, but to daily living.

Nakahira breaks the story down into his background, his relationship with small farmers, and the mutually beneficial relationship with restaurateurs. Those chefs were looking for ingredients that set their food apart, and Fujimoto's artisanal understanding of food gave them exactly what they needed. There's a scene where a customer is amazed at how good a simple chicken and vegetable dish was, and the chef correctly gives credit to the source. Fujimoto advised and encouraged small farmers to be bold and try new things, and locally-sourced food has been the backbone of both the farm-to-fork restaurant movement, it's had an influence on larger chain stores. Freshness, flavor, and health became as important than mass production and convenience. Nakahira interestingly ties all of this into his Japanese background, even if he didn't come out and explicitly make this connection himself. The work ethic, the craft, and the tradition went back years in America,as many Japanese immigrants set up farms.

Nakahira's research and attention to detail are excellent. Nakahira's reportage is top-notch, both in terms of doing the legwork on the grocer scene but also doing the work with regard to secondary sources that provided facts, figures, and dates. Adding her own personal story to the mix was an interesting move that paid off, though I wish she had been a little more specific at the end when she was tying together his ancestry with his expertise. Nakahira has a real talent for humanizing a particular topic while providing a deep well of knowledge for the reader to draw from. She made the reader care about Fujimoto both as a person and as a trailblazer, and his humility, in particular, shone through. Visually, Nakahira is absolutely rock-solid in terms of layouts and storytelling. She made the story visually interesting and compelling. Again, her weakness is in character interaction, and her figures, in general, are a bit stiff. She's not quite mastered the nuances of facial expressions either. Her line is functional and did the job, but there were times I wish there had been more visual flourishes that really made the food snap on the page. All of this is just a matter of time, repetition, and drawing from life. All in all, Nakahira has the makings of an excellent memoirist and an even better graphic journalist.                                                                                       

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