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Mangaka shines loving light on quake-affected Miyagi Pref. city

© Tanaka Akio 2017/Futabasha
The cover of the first volume of “River End Cafe” by Akio Tanaka

The Kyukitakami River runs through the city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture. On an island near the mouth where the river empties into the Pacific Ocean, there stands a strange, UFO-like building.

It is the Ishinomaki Mangattan Museum, which houses a collection of original manga works by Shotaro Ishinomori (1938-1998), a native of the prefecture. In 2001, I went there to report on the opening of the facility, which is like a theme park and has entertaining exhibits. The first director of the museum was mangaka Shinji Mizushima, who passed away in January. It is definitely a must-see for Ishinomori fans.

Since “River End Cafe” is set in Ishinomaki, it is not unusual that the museum shows up in the background at times. But, while undoubtedly an eye-catching structure, that’s not the only reason for its appearance.

It is a summer day, 6½ years after the Great East Japan Earthquake. Saki Irie, a second-year high school student, comes across a strange cafe set on an island in the river. Called the River End Cafe, the establishment is run by a long-haired, dour middle-aged man. It is frequented by eccentric and otherworldly characters, such as old man Shige, an erotic film collector; the fake psychic Nee-san (Big sister); and a female enka (Japanese pop ballad) singer touring the countryside. For whatever reason, Saki takes a liking to the place, although she will later get continually caught up in their hijinks.

Saki was 10 years old when she lost her parents in the earthquake. Still traumatized, she continues to have flashbacks of that terrible day. On top of that, she became the target of severe bullying at school after making candid and controversial remarks about reconstruction after the earthquake. With no hope for the future, she is on the verge of total despair. Then a ray of hope emerges when the cafe owner plays an old record of a black female singer …

The creator of “River End Cafe,” mangaka Akio Tanaka, comes from Ishinomaki. He has earned a high reputation for his depictions of intense violence in such manga as “Shamo,” which delves into the world of underground martial arts, or the hard-boiled comedy “Meiso-O Border.” In “River End Cafe,” however, he turns a loving and compassionate eye onto the people of post-earthquake Ishinomaki, without the “we shall overcome” platitudes. In Volume 8, Saki regains lost memories, and for the first time, what she went through back then is illustrated in great detail. It contains scene after scene of heartbreaking and painful moments, which are beautiful and touching at the same time.

The tsunami that followed the earthquake flooded the Ishinomaki Mangattan Museum to the ceiling of the first floor. But the museum’s collection of 90,000 items, including original manuscripts, were stored on the third floor and went undamaged. Apparently, the museum was designed with a tsunami in mind. After the quake, it was closed for 20 months before reopening as a symbol of recovery and reconstruction. River End Cafe is supposed to sit on the same island as the museum. However, its precise location is not clear, which I find a bit mysterious.

The ninth and the final volume of the series came out at the end of last year. Reading to the very end, I was completely taken aback, and I hastily began re-reading the manga from the beginning. The place name Ishinomaki (made up of kanji characters meaning “stone” and “to roll”) is apparently derived from big whirlpools being generated from the water hitting a huge rock in the riverbed. But the river is not the only place where there is whirling. I was utterly impressed. This is a masterpiece.

In a few weeks, it will be 11 years since the 2011 quake and tsunami. I would love to go back to Ishinomaki to have another look at the Mangattan Museum.

— Kanta Ishida, Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer