Who'd've guessed: a realistic slice-of-life drama about a time traveling salaryman.
Writer/Artist: Jiro Taniguchi
What They Say
Who hasn't thought about reliving their past, correcting perceived mistakes or changing crucial decisions? Would this better your life or the lives of those closest to you? Or would your altered actions prove even more harmful? One man gets the chance to find out...
Middle-aged Hiroshi Nakahara is on his way home from a business trip when he finds himself on the wrong train heading for his childhood hometown. His footsteps take him to his mother's grave and it's there that he is catapulted back into his life as an 8th grader - but with all his adult memories and knowledge intact. As he struggles to make sense of his predicament his adult memories of his childhood return but are somehow subtly changed. The questions start to form... Would his father still disappear without explanation? Would he still marry his wife?
Ponent Mon's two-volume release of A Distant Neighborhood seems to be aimed primarily at the indie comics community rather than a general manga readership, and it's packaged (and priced!) accordingly. Possible objections to the flipped artwork aside, Ponent Mon's presentation is quite good overall: the artwork is printed on thick, oversized paper stock, and both volumes are wrapped in an elegant softcover binding with French flaps. The printing quality is very high, among the best I've seen in a domestic manga release. Of course, the packaging's not without its quibbles: inner monologues are printed in an ugly, hard-to-read typeface that looks an awful lot like Comic Sans, and the two volumes are divided in a really inconvenient place that makes me wonder why it wasn't sold as a single omnibus release to begin with.
Taniguchi's artwork is one of the highlights of the series: the characters and settings are drawn in a realistic style that's especially fitting for the story's low-key atmosphere. Character artwork remains consistent and on-model throughout both volumes, and I have no doubts that the clothing and settings are both accurate to 1960s Japan.
Contents (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
I'm very rarely apologetic about my tastes in manga; but for the purposes of this review, I'll make an exception. Even if it hadn't earned an Eisner Award nomination or two, A Distant Neighborhood is the sort of work that I'm very obviously supposed to like: a poignant look at high school life that excels by all technical measures. Fans of nostalgia oriented or slice-of-life series will very probably adore these books, and with good reason.
But personally? The warmest recommendation I can honestly offer is ... eh, it's okay. I wouldn't have personally paid $40 for it, but I'm not about to demand my time back either.
Here's the thing: at least at first, A Distant Neighborhood doesn't look much like a low-key slice-of-life series. Nominally, it has to do with a forty-eight year old salaryman named Hiroshi Nakahara who accidentally boards the wrong train to his old hometown, passes out drunk at his mother's grave, and wakes up in 1963 as a fourteen year old boy again. Although he's physically back in 1963 again, Hiroshi's retained his memories right up to the moment he traveled back in time -- including the fact that his father plans to abandon his family within a few months.
Unfortunately, the reason the series didn't grab me like it probably should've is that the time traveling and mystery elements aren't really the only focuses of the series (thematically-speaking, at least) and arguably not even the primary focuses. Quite a lot of time is spent with Hiroshi simply reliving his everyday life as a teenager: he copes with school (made easier by having already gone through it once), tries to be a good friend to his classmates and a good role model to his little sister, and starts a romantic relationship with his classmate Nagase. Even when Hiroshi's actively trying to solve the mystery of his father's disappearance, much of this investigation develops into otherwise unrelated plot threads; as a result of red herrings, Hiroshi finds out about his mother's first husband and forges a friendship with his father's dying friend. No doubt, his father's disappearance is an important subplot, and one that weighs down heavily on Hiroshi toward the second volume's end; but the series's true thematic focus is in capturing a sort of nostalgia for early adolescence, building on top of everyday situations that could've just as easily worked removed from the time-traveling context. Frankly, these sorts of slice-of-life storytelling elements don't really interest me a whole lot -- at least not in manga form -- so I was more than a little bit disappointed once I realized that this was the direction where the series was headed.
That said, the reason I feel somewhat bad about finding A Distant Neighborhood dry is that Taniguchi's clearly put quite a bit of heart into the storytelling. There's an obvious nostalgic tint to everything that goes on here, but it almost never feels pandering: minus the time-traveling premise, the portrayals of the characters and the situations Hiroshi finds himself in are exceptionally realistic, down to small details like English lectures lifted from contemporary textbooks. (Even those rare instances of wish-fulfillment fantasy are restricted to minor things like Hiroshi making some remarks to grown-up women and impressing a couple of people with his knowledge of alcohol.) I wouldn't at all hesitate to recommend the series to readers who're more appreciative of the slice-of-life genre than I am, and I expect it to be very warmly welcomed within that sizeable niche audience; I'm just disappointed that the series didn't have much appeal for me as someone outside of that audience.
Probably my only legitimate complaint against A Distant Neighborhood is that it seems to be one thing going in before turning into something else quite different -- and that "something else" just isn't something I'm all that interested in. There's little doubt that it's a well-crafted slice-of-life series that will make quite a few fans of that genre very happy; though if my own experience is any indicator, it's probably not going to hold much of a broad appeal outside that fanbase.