Book Review: Ichiro by Ryan Inzana
Ryan Inzana’s second graphic novel is the story of Ichiro, a teenaged boy, struggling to find his place in this world. He lives in New York City with his Japanese mother, having never really known his American father, a soldier who was killed in Iraq. He doesn’t feel like he belongs in New York City, where men on the subway mock his mother (“them lil’ chink-ee eyes you got, lady…”), where he hides behind his father’s oversized Ray Bans. He is unsure about himself, trying to navigate this world, not knowing how he fits in it.
When his mother has to move to Japan for work, she decides that Ichiro will stay with her father, his maternal grandfather in their village, while she works in Tokyo. She wants him to have a close relationship with her father, in part because she senses that Ichiro’s paternal grandfather, Granpa Benny, is not a very good influence. Granpa Benny represents the worst of America—yelling at immigrant shopkeepers and telling Ichiro to be careful and never trust these “A-rabs”, giving Ichiro a US Marines t-shirt that says, “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out!”
In Japan, Ichiro’s grandfather takes him to see the sights, including the Peace Park in Hiroshima. He tells Ichiro about the attack on the city, the legends of the gods themselves who are supposed to protect Japan, and the story of his great-uncle who witnessed the bombing raids on Tokyo. Ichiro cannot fathom the cruelty and the futility of war. “All those innocent people died in Hiroshima and for what?!” he asks his grandfather. On their way home, at a video game arcade, Ichiro sees other teens playing “Army Action Hero” and hears them yell, “Waste that guy!” at the screen. Ichiro leaves without playing, and Inzana captures that moment of grief and bewilderment delicately.
But even in Japan, Ichiro struggles to belong. He is teased by local boys in the village for being a foreigner and not speaking Japanese properly. He spends most of his time with his grandfather, fishing, talking about his father, listening to stories of Japanese gods. One night, trying to solve the mystery of his neighbor’s stolen persimmon fruits, Ichiro chases a shape-shifting magical tanuki, a raccoon-like creature from the world of Japanese gods. In their world, the gods are fighting too, and Ichiro gets caught up in the middle of it all.
Ichiro echoes the themes of Inzana’s first book, Johnny Jihad. Both have young protagonists who are affected by the horrors of war. Their fathers served in the US military, one in Vietnam and the other in Iraq. They are unsure about their place in this world, trying to understand, finding a place to belong. But where Johnny Jihad feels stilted, with its matter-of-fact narration and its caricatured depictions of the government and the CIA, Ichiro is enriched by the depth and simplicity of a young boy. John, in wanting to belong to something, anything, turns to jihad and subsequent violence, but Ichiro, under the guidance of his grandfather, looks at war and human nature from a different perspective. With Ichiro, Inzana’s writing is stronger—forceful and convincing. He captures the worries that torment a teenager with both his words and drawings.
But more compelling are the parallels drawn between this world of mortals and the world of gods, which question human nature itself. Can men ever find peace and rise above war, if the gods themselves are not immune to it?
Ichiro is a well-created book, with beautiful art and a captivating story. Inzana’s artwork is stunning in its detail, capturing movements with grace and depth. While most of the book is in black and white, Inzana depicts stories and legends of the gods in full color and uses red for emphasis and contrast (Ichiro’s jacket, persimmon fruits on a tree). This 2013 Eisner Award nominee begins as a classic coming-of-age story but soon evolves into a unique look at human life itself.