Tonoharu Part One
By Lars Martinson
Travelogues are supposed to be sweeping affairs—grand epics of countrysides painted with broad brush strokes, external manifestations foreshadowing the key character changes our protagonist will undergo over the course of our story. In life, however, as anyone who has spent any time traveling can tell you, such changes are not necessarily inevitable, and while it can certainly be argued, that our settings shape us as people, the assumption that massive shifts in scenery will beget equally large shifts in character seems a rather simplistic way of approaching matters.
On a base level, Tonoharu is a fairly straightforward story of a stranger in a strange land. At the center of the book is Daniel Welles, a recent college grad living in a small Japanese village for a year as junior high school assistant English teacher. In the book’s prologue, which serves to very concisely bring the reader up to speed (while condensing a good deal of plotpoints that are ultimately retread in greater detail over the course of the book), Welles asserts his own grand ambitions, stating simply and boldly, “[m]y legacy was to be monumental.” He would return fluent in Japanese, having transformed the school system he’d set out to work in—something of a Stand and Deliver for the tiny Southern Japanese village.
But where a sense of hope influenced his initial decision to embark on the journey, the Welles that begins the prologue’s narration is gripped with feelings of failure and isolation. Clearly in the story set to unfold in the remainder of this first book and the three planned sequels can be expected to deviate a good deal from the grand heroic trajectory that Welles had set out for himself on the onset of his journey.
For his part, author Lars Martinson doesn’t toss up any major roadblocks for his protagonist in this first book. There’s none of the grand violence or theft that often befalls characters placed in similar situations. Rather, for a book so hinged upon a change of scenery, Tonoharu’s story is extremely internalized, a matter reflected by the book’s art, which save for a few deviations—primarily over the course of the prologue—rarely zooms out from its close framing on the main character and whomever else might be next to him. It’s a successful technique for painting a character, who, despite possessing the wherewithal to travel halfway around the world to discover something about himself, can’t leave his inhibitions long enough to get to know his coworkers, strike up the courage to ask out a fellow expat teacher, or embrace Japanese language or culture.
It’s an effective object lesson, illustrating that character changes require more than a change in scenery—no matter how drastic. In fact, it paradoxically may be a touch too effective, which is to say that Martinson largely avoids the manner of sharp plot points that may be necessary to compel many readers to purchase the second, third, an fourth installments of the story.
Fortunately, Martinson exerts a proficient level of control both over his pacing and art, the latter of which combines the clean lines of Chris Ware or Dan Clowes’s cartoonier moments with an undying love of all things crosshatched. If anything brings readers back for subsequent books, it’ll be the chance to watch the development of a new face with a lot of potential.