In the last few months, I’ve resumed my interest in Japanese and Korean literature and manga (comics). I’m willing to admit, although embarrassingly, that much of my curiosity in the past was in my teenage interest in anime and pop culture and in the Hallyu Wave from South Korea, K-pop, Korean films and television. I still like those things, but as I’ve travelled and have become more exposed to different cultures and ideas, I’ve thought it important, before consuming any medium from those whose backgrounds are unfamiliar to me, to try and understand the cultural influences that inspire a person’s work. I’ve often found that, outside of film, food, music, and pop culture, most Americans, whether purposefully or not, know little to none about foreign cultures outside of the frivolous or the cartoonish. And when consuming art, literature, music or any sort of medium produced in other countries, many Americans don’t try to look beyond just being entertained, to look deeply within the socio-political concepts of reality that are often missed or ignored when pursuing alternative forms or creative expression. It’s quite common for Americans to be thoroughly ignorant of other cultures and ethnicities, but the thing that has been consistent over centuries has been the willful ignorance of Asian cultures in particular.
To remain separate from the fore, I’m trying to learn more about socio-political issues within Asian culture, from to politics to mental health. I admit that I still understand very little, but from what I’ve been able to grasp, I feel that the knowledge that I’ve obtained has helped me to look at Asian cultures with a much less regressive or alien view than I would have compared to when I was younger, and it’s definitely easy for me to separate what is comfortably normalized here in America to the reality that exists in other countries. I continue to want to learn. I’ve watched a lot of documentaries, few good, but with themes in particular focusing on the pressures of keeping up with social norms in Asian society. Joblessness, mental illness, loneliness, alcoholism, domestic violence, eating disorders, bullying and social acceptance are some issues that affect many people in Asia, the youth in particular.
So, when I read In Clothes Called Fat by Moyoco Anno, I was already familiar with some of the themes of her work, but in reading and watching the few interviews that she has done, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that she was a female centric writer. I’m always happy to find great female writers! Before being published as a book in 2015, ICCF was serialized in a women’s-focued magazine called Shuukan Josei back in 1997 and was written and illustrated by Anno. Anno is best known in Japan for her female-centered comics in the shojo (comics focused on and aimed towards women with themes such as relationships and self-image) and josei (female teen and young adult comics and anime) manga genres.
The book centers around Noko Hanazawa. Noko has it tough: a shit job where her boss hates her, co-workers who bully her, a boyfriend who cheats on her. Even throughout all of her struggles, she remains, publically anyway, optimistic, but in private, she deals with the stress by binge eating. At some point, Noko begins to convince herself that that all of the problems will go away if she loses weight. Unfortunately, Noko’s obsession with her weight and weight loss leads her down a road of self-destructive behavior that to Noko seems worth it, in the end she loses more than just a few inches off of her waist line.
There isn’t much examination that needs to be done with ICCF, it’s pretty straight forward. Anno’s ICCF explores the psychological tug-of-war in the world of eating disorders in Japanese women in relation to self-image and peer pressure, ideas that are typically seen as only being a “Western” or “first world” problem that young girls and women in the U.S. (and the U.K.) face. What I also like about ICCF is that the lives of the women in the comic are complex, not magical or hyper-realized or cartoonish.
Though some aspects of the plot and writing are idealized and improbable, the book keeps its feet deeply grounded in reality, and Anno’s reality is harsh and painful but her characters seem to transform in some way and have some sort of deep personal growth even if their ending is ambiguous. A lot of readers complained that the characters are unlikeable, but I disagree. I think that what makes them likable is the fact that each is imperfect. In fact, the characters are downright scumbags, but Anno does not try to amend their behaviour through some sort of moral epiphany or deep self-realizations that ultimately lead towards a flat happy ending. Because, that’s not how life is. It’s a world that most people don’t want to see, I get that, but it exists. It’s a world where people get fucked over, get hurt, are humiliated, but ultimately figure out how to move on and are, maybe, stronger in the future because of it but Anno doesn’t let the reader happily rest on that idea with this book. I love writers who are unafraid to depict the world as it is; a world where reality is vague, disturbing, and frustratingly complex.
Since this is the only book I’ve read by Anno, I won’t give a full interpretation of her work as a whole, but from what I’ve read, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her books.
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