A Quiet Vision of Hope
Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou - the quaint, never-ending story of a robot, her café, and the customer-friends she makes as she awaits her owner's return
As an English literature major, I've had the opportunity (and chore) to read some of the world's greatest texts. As a rabid comic book reader, I've had exposure to many different graphic styles of story telling, some so powerful that little to no words are required on the page. Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou is a rare find, falling into both of these categories.
Seldom do I find myself moved by manga. Generally, manga as a style lends itself more towards comedy and action, as does comic art as a whole. But once in a while, an artist manages to write and draw a remarkable story. I've been an avid reader of Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou for a few years now, keeping it tucked away in my heart. I'd like to share this gem with you this month.
Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou is translated as "Record of a Yokohama Shopping Trip" or "Yokohama Shopping Trip Diary". The title comes from Alpha, our robotic central character, making a trip to Yokohama to buy coffee beans in the opening chapter. Alpha runs Café Alpha, a small coffee shop in the middle of nowhere, as she waits for the return of her owner, who disappeared some years ago. Occasionally, she receives letters and presents from this mysterious owner, but for the most part, Alpha is left to her own devices to wear away the days in the countryside. She explores the surrounding areas, but for the most part she stays at the café, conversing with her few but dedicated clientele, which make up the supporting characters of Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou.
The plot sounds fairly simple so far. However, this simple tale of self-discovery has lasted almost ten years in Kodansha Afternoon, one of the infamous monthly Japanese manga magazines of encyclopedic size. So what's the secret to its success? I think the pacing of the story and Ashinano Hitoshi's graceful artwork plays a key role in its longevity.
There are few true story arcs in this series thus far, and none of them are essential to understanding the manga's underlying story (which is still a very open and vocal debate on YKK fan message boards). So you could pick up the story from any chapter and still enjoy it. Each chapter tells a complete story of Alpha and/or her friends without feeling rushed or dragged out. To maintain such a state of balance for almost 120 chapters is, quite frankly, amazing. Often the chapter is a monologue, yet somehow the reading experience is zen-like. You finish the chapter, and have to quietly pause to reflect on what you have just read. YKK is actually very calming and soothing to read. I'd like to think that this language effect is due to Ashinano Hitoshi's writing and excellent fan translation work.
Yes, this fantastic series is only available through manga scanslations by some very devoted fans of the series. Hopefully, some US publisher will pick it up, but that's very unlikely due to its age and frequency of publication (can you imagine waiting over a year for each volume?). Additionally, YKK caters to a more mature audience than the target audience of the major US manga publishers. YKK appeals to older teens and adults with its solemn yet jovial tone in spite of the daily corrosion of the world.
YKK's world is a possible future, where the coastal cities have been completely flooded, and the water is still slowly rising. Countries, as we understand them, have disappeared. Instead, people live in small communities, living off the ruins of civilization. Humanity is declining, both in education and in numbers, as there are few children in this world, and these few are treasured and raised by everyone in the 'village', so to speak. However, this world is far from being bereft of hope. Civilized life continues on, with marketplaces, coffee shops, gas stations, and motorized vehicles. Alpha and the other 'Alpha Series' robots are so amazingly human-like in their thoughts and feelings, it's hard not to feel that Ashinano Hitoshi presents them as the inheritors of the dying world, as they watch humanity slowly slip away. In the first chapter, Alpha remarks "It looks like the twilight of this age has quietly arrived. I think I'll be around till these twilight years end."
Yet at the heart of this manga are the themes of renewal and self-discovery. The backgrounds show grass covering asphalt and rows of underwater streetlights, still lighting up at dusk. One of the story arcs involves Alpha leaving the café to go on a sight seeing journey across Japan and going to a water god shrine to collect sacred water for the café's coffee. Kokone, Alpha's friend and 'sister' robot, researches the origins of the Alpha Series to find out why and how they are so human-like. Did their maker intend for them to feel, or is this something that evolved independently?
The art style is hard to describe, as there's nothing really out there to directly compare it to that I've stumbled around. Ashinano pays a great deal of detail to backgrounds and landscapes, giving them a free flowing penciled look that makes the eye finish the lines and focus on the open spaces he leaves for the reader to fill. This style extends to the characters, where facial features are very basic, but great attention is paid to their clothing and accessories.
Colored pages (volume covers, omake, and featured chapters by Kodansha Afternoon) are also in this style, where the lines are drawn over with watercolor pencils (that's the medium I think it is; either that or straight watercolors). The colors sometimes feel too bright, but you have to remember that originally the artwork is printed on rough telephone book paper where color needs to be strong to stand out and be printed quickly (i.e. minimal color blending).
Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou has been for the most part sadly overlooked by American otaku. However, I have seen the OAVs (Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou and Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou: Quiet Country Café, 1998 and 2002-2003 respectively) being shown at anime and gaming cons, so perhaps this exposure will inspire people to look up the manga. I have never seen the OAVs myself, but I have heard that they are a fairly faithful adaptation of the early chapters of the manga and good anime flicks overall.
So why not try out this timeless manga today? I can almost guarantee that you'll be hooked by the second volume, if not by the first. However, I can give you some parting reading advice; modern literary gems are meant to be savored slowly. Limit yourself to one chapter a day and let this shopping trip gently work its magic.