Column: Global Ghoul: Tropic of the Sea

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Kon, Satoshi. Tropic of the Sea. Vertical Inc, 2013. $14.95. ISBN: 978-1-939130-06-8.

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[dropcap]S[/dropcap]atoshi Kon is a master artist. I love paging through Tropic of the Sea. Open vistas, subtle facial expressions, and fluid character motion suggest that the characters live in a very real world. All of this drew me in, kept me going, when I found out that the story was boring.

I didn’t want to type those words. I love Satoshi Kon. I love his movies. And maybe the movies are the problem? Maybe Kon needs actors to bring his characters to life, to give the words on the page weight? They look so alive when I’m paging through the book, but they fall flat when I start reading the story.

The story itself is simple. Yosuke Yashiro and his family have been the keepers of the Mermaid’s Egg for generations. Once every sixty years, they take the egg back to the sea so that it can hatch and then they receive a new egg. They keep the egg in a beautifully rendered shrine on a placid hillside in the seaside town of Ade. If they keep their pact, the mermaid uses her power to calm the sea and to fill the nets of the local fisherman.

Yosuke and his grandfather are staunch traditionalists, but Yosuke’s father is smoothing the way for real estate developers and using the legend of the mermaid to drum up tourism. The whole town is in an uproar. Some dread the coming changes and some welcome the prosperity that will follow. There’s a lot of intended tension on the page, but it never really comes to life.

Not until the end of the book. Everything speeds up; everything happens. The story grows tight with tension and everything takes on meaning, giving the story the feel of a potboiler drama. It’s too bad that it takes so long to get boiling, but once it does, it boils over the sides of the pot and sizzles on the burners.

Am I too jaded? Is my attention span too short to accommodate this kind of story? I don’t think so. There are writers whose prose spills across the page with a languid beauty that can keep me hypnotized for hours on end. Lucius Shepard is a good example. He writes tangled, two-page paragraphs that always enthrall me. Jo Walton writes slow-moving speculative fiction cozies, but I’ve read almost everything she’s ever written with the manic hunger of a junkie. And neither Shepard nor Walton used art to help them along. Though, to be fair, Shepard has scripted a few comics.

But Kon wows us in the end. So, all is forgiven. His depictions of the mermaids, both adult and infant, encapsulate the sense of wonder that all of us crave. Both panels stopped me with their emotional impact. They are the perfectly placed notes that give the entire song resonance.

I expected everything out of this book. The cover promises so much. Such a calming blue, within blue, within blue. The ripples in Yosuke’s shirt and his wind-tossed hair suggest a power barely contained within the pages. Satoshi Kon’s name on the cover had a lot to do with raising my expectations. Maybe I expected too much? I got everything I wanted, just not when I wanted it. I almost put the book down, but, as I said before, the art kept me going.

Kon’s art is similar to Katsuhiro Otomo’s. If I didn’t know who had drawn this book, I would have, at first glance, assumed it was Otomo. Upon closer inspection, there are key differences in facial shape, body language, and design.

I think this is one of those books that I struggle with at first and then grow to love over time. I hope so. I think I’ll sit down and read it again. Right now.

Satoshi Kon’s Tropic of the Sea has an 8 out of 10 chance of waking Cthulhu from his eternal slumber. I planned to give it a lower rating, but it won me over in the end.

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