Writer & Artist: Fumio Obata
Release Date: March 17, 2015
The story of Yumiko, a Japanese woman living in London who returns home when her father dies unexpectedly, Just So Happens is Fumio Obata’s expanded adaptation of Going Back, a briefer work that was also the runner-up in Observer’s 2010 short graphic story competition. Obata essentially covers the same ground in this graphic novel that he did in the short story, but at 160 pages the narrative gets a new chance to breathe and stretch its elbows out. That’s not an unimportant consideration; the book deals largely with cultural conflict played out with restraint, and although Yumiko is happy in England, she does rediscover the beauty of her homeland on her impromptu trip.
Obata does a fine job diagramming Japan’s weaknesses and strengths, especially from a more feminist perspective, in the kind of cultural assessment that can only be done by someone who can see both the insider’s and outsider’s perspectives. Just So Happens abstains from romanticizing, which is a smart move. Yumiko isn’t particularly sentimental, despite her situation. In fact, she has a difficult time getting in touch with her emotions. But that authorial decision makes her feel like more of a real character and less like a vehicle for a cliched journey of self-discovery. Ditto for her body type and fashion sense, which call to mind Fiona Staples’ character designs.
The book’s main strengths lie in its visuals, beautifully composed in pen and watercolor washes that never veer into precious extremes. Obata often adopts a high perspective that removes us emotionally from the story, but has parallels in the analogy of Noh theater he uses throughout: rather than spelling out the relationships between characters or discussing their feelings, he lets that information articulate through the gesture, pose and arrangement of figures, akin to moving dolls around on a stage. It’s hard to say whether this restraint is also what makes the writing feel a little thin at times, or whether the narrative simply doesn’t have enough substance to occupy the allotted pages. In particular, Obata’s reliance on dreams/hallucinated semi-supernatural elements seems like taking the easy way out, even as it, too, has relevance to Noh. Few other characters emerge to the same extent as our protagonist, although her mother makes an impact in only a few pages.
At times, Just So Happens feels more like illustration work and less like a self-contained story, as though Obata is reluctant to dig into meatier, messier content. Nonetheless, the graphic novel maintains a holistic sense of peacefulness in its pages that presents a fine contrast to the common fidgetiness of the medium.