Uncomfortably Happily

Uncomfortably HappilyCreator: Yeon-sik Hong
Translator: Hellen Jo
U.S. publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
ISBN: 9781770462601
Released: June 2017
Original release: 2012
Awards: Manhwa Today Award

Lately it seems as though there has been something of a renaissance or Korean literature in English translation. Korean comics haven’t yet experienced quite the same kind of resurgence, but they do continue to be licensed and translated. One of the most recent and notable manhwa releases in English is Yeon-sik Hong’s aptly named Uncomfortably Happily. Previously published in France in 2013 under the title Historie d’un Couple (History of a Couple), Uncomfortably Happily was originally released in Korea in two volumes in 2012 where it won the Manhwa Today Award. Drawn and Quarterly’s English-language edition of the work collects the entirety of Uncomfortably Happily in a single volume and features a translation by Hellen Jo, an accomplished comics creator and illustrator in her own right. The volume also includes a personal essay by Jo. Uncomfortably Happily is Hong’s first major personal work, a memoir of the short time he and his wife lived in the Korean countryside. Prior to its release, Hong was predominantly involved in commercial creative projects.

Yeon-sik Hong and Sohmi Lee are recently married and looking for a new home; their current apartment is on loan to Yeon-sik from one of his previous publishers and it’s past time that they move on. Since they’ll need to leave anyway, the couple decides to take the opportunity to find a place that’s more suited to their needs. Somewhere quiet and less complicated, congested, and expensive than city life in Seoul; somewhere they can both focus on their creative work. Eventually the two become enamored with a house and a bit of land for rent on the top of a mountain in rural Pocheon. With the clean air, beautiful countryside, and calm environment it seems like the perfect place for them–at least at first. Yeon-sik, Sohmi, and their three cats make the move only to discover that living in the country brings along with it its own sorts of challenges. But despite the isolation, inadequate public transportation, confrontations with hostile hikers, inclement weather, and encroaching development, they slowly build a home for themselves. It can be difficult at times, though, and some things never really change–financial hardship, personal anxieties, and looming deadlines don’t simply disappear and it’s just as easy to find distractions in the countryside as it is in the city.

Uncomfortably Happily, page 131Though I currently live in a more urban environment, I grew up and have spent most of my life in a very rural area. In Uncomfortably Happily, Hong captures beautifully what it is like to live in the country, both the good and the bad, the satisfaction and the stress. The volume’s chapters are divided by season, the narrative perfectly conveying the rhythms of the natural world and the lifestyle that is so closely dependent upon those rhythms, including the winters that seem to last forever with no relief in sight. Hong’s style of illustration is relatively simple but the attention given to the detail of the land- and cityscapes establish a real sense of place. In addition to the external world, the visuals in Uncomfortably Happily also reveal Hong’s internal mindscapes and imaginative fantasies. Though the subject matter can often be quite serious, Hong takes a charming and lighthearted approach. The small family (animals included) frequently break into musical numbers and Hong’s psyche manifests on the page in both amusing and affecting ways. But while humor is generally present in Uncomfortably Happily, the manhwa is also a sincere and honest work.

Uncomfortably Happily is a straightforward yet layered story of the day-to-day life of a newlywed couple going through a major transition in their life. There is the move to the countryside itself and all that entails, but Uncomfortably Happily is also the story about Hong’s emotional and mental turmoil as he struggles with professional and personal insecurities. At the beginning of Uncomfortably Happily Hong is already approaching burnout and the potential for a breakdown doesn’t seem to be very far behind; meanwhile Lee is making tremendous progress in her career as a picture book illustrator. It was bound to happen eventually regardless of location, but Hong having to confront and come to terms with his own abilities and limitations, wants and needs while living on a secluded mountaintop has a certain poetic appropriateness to it. While Hong’s particular situation and psychological journey are certainly unique, the themes explored in the manhwa are universal; Uncomfortably Happily is an engrossing and immensely relatable work.

Thank you to Drawn & Quarterly for providing a copy of Uncomfortably Happily for review.

Kitaro, Volume 1: The Birth of Kitaro

Kitaro, Volume 1: The Birth of KitaroCreator: Shigeru Mizuki
U.S. publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
ISBN: 9781770462281
Released: May 2016
Original release: 1966-1968

In 2013, comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly released Kitaro a volume collecting stories from Shigeru Mizuki’s most well-known and beloved manga series GeGeGe no Kitaro. I absolutely loved the collection and so I was thrilled when Drawn & Quarterly announced that it would be publishing more of Mizuki’s GeGeGe no Kitaro in English as part of its Enfant line of kids comics. The Birth of Kitaro, released in 2016, is the first of seven planned Kitaro volumes with stories selected, with input from Mizuki, by the manga’s translator and yokai scholar Zack Davisson. The Birth of Kitaro collects seven stories originally published in Japan between 1966 and 1968, an essay about the history of Kitaro as well as an additional guide to yokai written by Davisson, and an utterly delightful section devoted to yokai-themed activities such as a word search, a maze, and several matching games among other fun challenges.

The tales in The Birth of Kitaro begin with the origin story of Kitaro, a powerful and mostly benevolent yokai boy. (“The Birth of Kitaro” also explains why his father, Medama Oyaji, is a disembodied/embodied eyeball.) The chapter was first published in the influential alternative manga magazine Garo. The other six stories chosen for the collection were created with a slightly younger audience in mind and were serialized in Shonen Weekly and as well as the magazine’s special edition. The second chapter, “Nezumi Otoko versus Neko Musume,” introduces one of the series’ primary recurring characters. Nezumi Otoko, one of Kitaro’s yokai friends even though he is a bit of jerk, tends to either cause trouble or get himself into trouble, needing to be chastised or rescued by Kitaro depending on the circumstances. The other stories included in The Birth of Kitaro are “Nopperabo,” “Gyuki,” “Yokai of the Mountain Pass,” “Makura Gaeshi,” and “Hideri Gami.”

The Birth of Kitaro, page 43As much as I loved Drawn & Quarterly’s original Kitaro collection, I think that I may love The Birth of Kitaro even more. All of the stories selected for the volume are a little bit creepy, a little bit scary, and a little bit gross, but they are also a great deal of fun and can be rather funny, too. I had actually forgotten just how amusing Mizuki’s Kitaro manga could be; the mix of scariness and silliness in the series is marvelous. Mizuki has a terrific sense of humor and comedic timing, perfectly balancing the chuckles with the chills and thrills in the manga collected in The Birth of Kitaro. The horror and the humor work together to create an incredibly enjoyable read. It also doesn’t hurt that Kitaro is a likeable lead to begin with, and that the supporting characters like Nezumi Otoko and Medama Oyaji, with their distinctive personalities and entertaining interactions, add a tremendous amount to enjoy in the series as well.

Mizuki’s Kitaro manga is steeped in yokai lore which I love. Other readers picking up The Birth of Kitaro may not be as familiar with Japan’s mysterious monsters and phenomena, but the volume is still very approachable and accessible. The stories themselves provide an entertaining introduction to yokai (from time to time even Kitaro must do a bit of research in order to effectively confront and deal with troublesome spirits) and for readers who are curious to learn more, Davisson’s “Yokai Files” are an informative addition to the volume. The Birth of Kitaro is an excellent all-ages manga, suitable for younger readers who enjoy a bit of a scare and supernatural excitement while still being entertaining and appealing for adults. It’s also a wonderful overall package, with fun and games, the manga itself, and background information all together in one place. The new Kitaro series in English is off to a fantastic start with The Birth of Kitaro; I can’t wait for the next volume to be released.

Thank you to Drawn & Quarterly for providing a copy of The Birth of Kitaro for review.


KitaroCreator: Shigeru Mizuki
U.S. publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
ISBN: 9781770461109
Released: August 2013
Original release: 1967-1969

Over the last few years I have become increasingly interested in yokai—Japan’s supernatural beings and monsters of myth and legend. When it comes to yokai manga the most influential creator in Japan is Shigeru Mizuki. His most famous series GeGeGe no Kitaro is considered a classic and continues to inspire others. I was absolutely thrilled when Drawn & Quarterly announced that GeGeGe no Kitaro had been licensed in English. Kitaro, released in 2013, collects stories from the first few volumes of Mizuki’s GeGeGe no Kitaro published in Japan between 1967 and 1969. Also included in Drawn & Quarterly’s Kitaro is an excellent introduction by Matt Alt (one of the co-authors of Yokai Attack!) and a yokai glossary by Zach Davisson, both of which are particularly useful for readers who aren’t familiar with Kitaro or yokai, but which should also be interesting for those who are more knowledgeable.

“It is said that when the crow caws thrice, and the frog responds twice, the appearance of Kitaro is imminent.” Kitaro of the Graveyard, a one-eyed yokai in the form of a young boy whose ways are mysterious and who wields great spirit powers. Generally a friendly sort of fellow, Kitaro helps protect people from more malicious yokai although unscrupulous humans might find themselves on the losing end of an encounter with him as well. Sometimes working alone and sometimes enlisting the help of other yokai, Kitaro’s adventures take him all over Japan, everywhere from its most densely populated cities to its most remote islands and beyond. It is part of Kitaro’s mission to defeat evil yokai. The spirits and monsters that he faces will take all of the esoteric knowledge and supernatural skills he has to vanquish them, not to mention a little luck.

The stories in Kitaro tend to be episodic and vary in length—most are around fifteen pages while the longest could easily be collected as their own graphic novels. Although the stories aren’t directly related, many share recurring characters. The most notable are Kitaro himself, his father Medama Oyaji—an eyeball with a body who resides in Kitaro’s empty eye socket and enjoys a good teacup bath—and Nezumi Otoko—a half-human, half-yokai troublemaker and sometimes friend. Mizuki was inspired by more than just Japanese folklore when creating Kitaro. In addition to traditional yokai and his own imagination, popular culture and more modern kaiju were also important influences. Even monsters from Western literature, film, and mythology make an appearance. As a result, Kitaro is a lively amalgamation of sources.

I found Kitaro to be utterly delightful. Although it is a horror manga dealing with powerful supernatural creatures and featuring some legitimately creepy scenarios, Kitaro is also very funny and even cheerful in tone. Kitaro does seem to gain abilities as is convenient to the story, but it is still amusing to see how he manages to get out of precarious situations. It can be a bit silly at times, and on occasion deceptively simple and straightforward, but Kitaro is also a great deal of fun. Because of its episodic nature there isn’t much plot or character development, but Mizuki’s creations are still memorable. I particularly appreciate all of the different traditions he draws from to create a tale that is distinctly his own. I loved Kitaro and enjoyed the volume immensely. I sincerely hope that Drawn & Quarterly will be able to release more of the series.


Creator: Shigeru Mizuki
U.S. publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
ISBN: 9781770460720
Released: April 2012
Original release: 1992
Awards: Angoulême Prize

I was very happy when Drawn & Quarterly announced that Shigeru Mizuki’s manga NonNonBa would be released in English in 2012. Mizuki is most well known for his yokai-filled manga series GeGeGe no Kitarō and as being a specialist in yokai. NonNonBa is a semi-autobiographical work capturing Mizuki’s childhood in 1930s Japan and a grandmother figure, NonNonBa, who first inspired his love of yokai. My personal interest in yokai naturally extends into an interest in Shigeru Mizuki and his work. Mizuki first wrote the story of NonNonBa in 1977 before adapting it as a manga in 1992. In 2007, the French edition of NonNonBa surprised many people by becoming the first manga to ever win the Angoulême Prize for Best Album. Drawn & Quarterly’s English edition of NonNonBa also includes an edited version of Kimie Imura’s 1977 essay “A Japanese Yokai Expert In Search of British Fairies” which provides even more insight into the life of Shigeru Mizuki. I was looking forward to reading NonNonBa a great deal.

Growing up in rural Sakaiminato, Shigeru is befriended by an older woman in the community who everyone affectionately calls “NonNonBa.” Shigeru loves listening to her stories about ghosts, spirits, and yokai. To NonNonBa, a highly spiritual person, they are more than just superstitions but are a fact of life. As she tells Shigeru, “It’s a mistake to think that just because you can’t see them they’re not there.” The stories give Shigeru’s already active imagination a creative outlet and he is inspired to draw and write his own tales of yokai and adventure. That is, when his young mind isn’t preoccupied by other things, such as the gangs of neighborhood boys battling over their territory and fighting for their honor. His family has its own problems, too, with his father flitting from job to job and Shigeru and his brothers constantly finding ways to get into trouble. In the end though, it’s all part of growing up.

Mizuki has expertly layered the supernatural into the everyday lives of his characters. While some, like Shigeru, deliberately seek out yokai, others do anything they can to avoid them. Some people believe in yokai, some people want to believe in yokai, and some people believe yokai are only a bunch of stories and superstitions. Many don’t even realize when they are interacting with yokai. For NonNonBa, the yokai are very real. In fact, one of my favorite moments in the entire volume is when she stares down a “slippery lad,” cowing it into going back home to where it came from. (I love and adore NonNonBa as much as Shigeru loves her; she is simply marvelous.) The yokai and their stories serve several purposes in real life and in NonNonBa. They give children a good reason to behave themselves and lead moral, upstanding lives. They are the basis for tests of courage. They instill a sense of wonder, respect, and even a little fear of the natural world. But perhaps most importantly in NonNonBa, they serve as a source of comfort.

NonNonBa comes across as a very nostalgic work, as if Mizuki is sitting next to the reader saying, “Remember that one time?” He also has a delightful sense of humor. There is no singular driving plot line in NonNonBa. Instead, the manga is a collection of closely related childhood memories and reflections. In many ways the narrative is unfocused, jumping from one aspect of Shigeru’s life to another only to throw them all together in seemingly haphazard ways. It’s not unlike little kids who get so excited about telling stories that they barely finish one before staring in on another as their attention zigzags. However, no matter how ordinary or extraordinary the events being told are, they’re all important to Shigeru and his personal growth. NonNonBa is filled with life lessons; Mizuki’s remembrances are meaningful to him, but they have the potential to be meaningful to the reader as well. But most of all, the manga is a beautiful and heartfelt tribute to the wonderful woman he knew as NonNonBa.