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Review: ‘Diary of a Tokyo Teen’

diary-of-a-tokyo-teen

Diary of a Tokyo Teen: A Japanese-American Girl Travels to the Land of Trendy Fashion, High-Tech Toilets and Maid Cafes
By Christine Mari Inzer
Tuttle; $14.99

Given its prominent role in our pop culture, Japan is a place of deep fascination for many young people, especially those immersed in comics, animation, and video games. It can also be a somewhat bewildering place for Americans to visit in real life, as the commonalities between the cultures that can make the country’s best manga and anime so enjoyable to Western readers are eclipsed by the more immediate differences of language and culture that naturally come to the fore in an actual visit.

For Christine Mari Inzer, visiting Japan was a very particular kind of peculiar experience. She was born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and an American father, and spent the first six years of her life there before the family relocated to America. A decade later, just as she was about to turn 16, she returned to spend eight weeks with her grandparents. She was now a tourist in her native country, a young Japanese-American exploring the Japan of her earliest years as an adolescent American.

Her Diary of a Tokyo Teen, self-published in 2014 and recently republished by Tuttle Publishing, is therefore told from an unusual if not unique perspective. It’s part scrapbook and part cartoon diary, from someone who is both an insider and an outsider at the same time, and is additionally in the liminal state between childhood and adulthood, where she’s just learning to really write and draw.

On the surface level, it’s a fun little comic carnet de voyage, and, if one wishes to dwell on it, an interesting artifact of culture clash, and perhaps an early flash of someone who will grow into an accomplished cartoonist.

Inzer flies to Japan alone, where we meet her grandparents and cousins in their Tokyo suburb. She goes into the city alone to visit Harajuku and then visits Kyoto with her grandmother. Later, the rest of her family arrives and spends some time with her there.

While the word “diary” is in the title, Inzer doesn’t share much about her interior life. Much of the contents are documenting what she saw and did, including photos, sketches of shrines and people, and comic strips detailing anecdotes. The rest take on a sort of explanatory, almost guide-like introduction to an element of Japan.

For example, here are the recurring TV personalities, here are the types of TV shows, this is how fast food restaurants differ, this is how doughnut shops differ, this is what the deer at Nara are like, this is the heart-breaking story of Hachiko, and so on.

Whatever the subject, Inzer communicates it casually and with a sense of humor, the presentation almost always coming in the form of a gag strip or at least having a light-hearted comment of some kind accompanying the photo or sketch.

Inzer’s art style is obviously amateurish, but she’s also a very talented amateur–I had to keep reminding myself she was literally just a teenager when she wrote and drew this–and her flat, angular drawing style is effective in accomplishing the goals of the narrative, although chances are you won’t spend much time lingering in amazement of her line work. My favorite images are the ones she draws where we also get to see her photo reference, so one can see how the real people and places are transformed by her pen. This includes Inzer herself.

Hers is a very natural, even intimate art style, which only further reinforces the feeling that Inzer is a friend sharing her experiences with you the reader personally, just telling you all about her trip in the way she feels most comfortable, rather than attempting some kind of grand work of comics literature.

It’s a great introduction to Japan too and, I imagine, a perfect bridge comic for young fans of manga to learn about the place it comes from in a medium they already have a pretty good handle on.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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