When I really like a story, I read it over and over and over. I treat it much the same as I would my new favorite song that’s just on repeat, repeat, repeat. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. However, there are some stories that, though I’d like nothing more than to dive into them for days on end, I just can’t. They’re too much for me to handle. Matsumoto Kentaro’s debut title, Clean a Wound, is one such story. I’ve only managed to read it from cover to cover twice and my cheeks were streaked with tears both times.
Clean a Wound is a single volume containing two unrelated stories. The title story bears witness to a twin coming to terms with the circumstances surrounding his brother’s death. The second, shorter story, “A Tailor’s Love,” is about a Taisho Era tailor and his relationship with the Young Master of the family who employs his services. There are light moments to be found shuffled in with the envelopes and wedged between bolts of fabric, but the overall feeling of the book is moody and heavy. While “Clean a Wound’s” weight comes in the form of heartbreak (mostly yours), the burden of “A Tailor’s Love” owes its presence to a barely concealed sense of melancholy.
Matsumoto’s art had a great impact on my overall appreciation of this title. Some may not be too keen on his* style and I can understand that, but I really hope that doesn’t stop anyone from getting to know his work. Describing his style in the context of familiarity, the character designs could be seen as a sketchy blend of Ono Natsume and Miike Romuco with a soupçon of early Tojitsuki Hajime thrown in. The environments and non-dialogue expressions are closer to a 60s children’s book style–shrouded in whimsy and mystery. Also, there’s something very French about it, but I can’t quite place the reference. In regards to it as a standalone style, I think it shines on its own as a pragmatic approach to illustrating a story. At times it may seem sophomoric and muddled, but the style is too consistent to be anything but deliberate. I admit that there are some (not that many, really) panels that may leave you cross-eyed after trying to work out what’s happening in the negative space, but with a skosh of patience, you’ll come to a point where you’ll be able to tell the difference between the panels containing seemingly haphazardly drawn figures and those that are filled with purely abstract expressions. I feel that Matsumoto’s lines were initially a means to an end–only what was needed to support his words would make it to the page–but later developed into strokes that are full of life and elaborately composed, yet remaining fundamentally utilitarian. Personally, I’m rather fond of it.
There’s a noticeable difference between the ways in which the stories are told visually. “A Tailor’s Love” is a story of duty, propriety, repression, prejudice, surrender, and longing. Tachibana is a tailor who has inherited his late Japanese father’s shop and now runs it with his British mother. Although the quality of his work is equal to that of the high social status of his clients, his biracial heritage remains a point of contention for some of the natives. His shop was chosen to outfit the heir of the Saijyou family and it is through this manner of service that he becomes enamored with the Young Master. They exist within the confines of a privileged society. People are expected to know their place. Uncontrolled passion is the height of impropriety. Never let your mask slip. For these and other reasons Tachibana keeps his desires in check. Representing this buttoned-down and heavily starched world are sparsely filled panels, large expanses of white, and solid blocks of color interrupting each other, sparing only a centimeter or two for a few instances of pattern. When characters are nearing their breaking point, the uncluttered storyscape changes to reflect it, but even as Tachibana dares to embrace his limits undone, his suffering and ease, for the most part, remains inhibited by the neatly drawn lines of each panel.
Conversely, “Clean a Wound” applies black, mid-tones, and patterns more liberally. The panels and the pages are littered–bordering on crammed–with dialogue, scenery, and noise. This cacophony is completely in sync with Hajime’s life throughout the story. From being an orphaned runaway with his twin Itaru in tow to the time when he was driven to murder for the sake of atonement to when he found a place to call home; as time jumps forward and backward Hajime’s journey manifests.
The first person we meet is Ryouta. The story he tells begins with a harmonious mix of tones and white space as we find him in the present. When he introduces us to Itaru, the balance shifts to favor the white space; their prelude was innocent enough. Heavier punches of black make their way onto the pages as Ryouta’s feelings begin to change. Next we’re introduced to Hajime. Dark, light and in between clashing and crashing against each other as he unleashes his torment and desperation on the unsuspecting Ryouta.
As time rewinds, Matsumoto coveys the virtue and ambiguity of youth with swatches of gray that cut through the breadth of white. It’s within these panels that we come to know the young twins. Their pain and fear fills in the white with pitchy tones, but once they feel like they’ve escaped the panels open up as if quickly ventilating a stifling room. The story rebounds into the darkness where we hear an oddly comforting voice breaking up the shadows with white scraps and patterned blocks to rouse Hajime. The voice belongs to a novelist named Sakurada; he happened upon Hajime just as the boy collapsed in an alleyway. As we learn of the events following the onset of their association and are greeted by Sakurada’s housekeeper, the honest Mimisaka, the pages get brighter and airier, but the grays linger–fading in and out of the panels. The tide of shades continues to ebb and flow as Hajime grows closer to his new companions and plays hide and seek with his past, present, and future.
Each tone applied or stripped away adds another layer to the stories. Each character introduced reveals another part of Tachibana and Hajime. These elements create an alliance on behalf of the writer’s efforts to invade the reader’s heart to inflict pain, incite anguish, ignite passion, and incur the solace of redemption. I felt it.
Matsumoto is a clever writer and a great storyteller. Both “Clean a Wound” and “A Tailor’s Love” included a line of dialogue which at the time they were spoken could have easily meant one thing, but as the story progressed and certain things came to light, the words could just as easily have been interpreted to mean something else. The translator has my appreciation for choosing the perfect phrasing to maintain the dichotomy of the phrases, because each one shapes the way the reader construes certain motives and intentions and accepts particular truths and realizations.
The stories in Clean a Wound will drag you out of the springs and into swamps, roll you over glass shards and bathe you in sunshine. It’s messy and moving, chaotic and calming; it is worth every tear, every laugh, every sigh, every smile that it evokes. And it’s worth every effort you make to make it your own.