I’ve written before about how great expectations can really affect my enjoyment of a given work. Brian Vaughan, Kaoru Mori, and Ed Brubaker have all found themselves on the receiving end of this sentiment at some point. “Tropic of the Sea,” is a special case. You see, this is the longest manga work from Satoshi Kon. If you’re not familiar with the name, then you should know that he went on to become one of the most distinctive, progressive, and acclaimed anime directors of the late 90’s and early aughts. He only directed four theatrical films, “Perfect Blue,” “Millenium Actress,” “Tokyo Godfathers,” and “Paprika,” and one series, “Paranoia Agent,” but they showed that he could tackle any kind of genre or subject matter and effortlessly draw the viewer in every time. His career was cut short in 2010, however, after he passed away from pancreatic cancer with his final film, “The Dream Machine,” still incomplete.
So you see, this book arrives with the weight of being the LAST SIGNIFICANT WORK we may ever see from Kon on these shores. It would take something close to a masterpiece not to buckle under the weight of those expectations. “Tropic of the Sea” is not that kind of work. In fact, it’s one of his earliest and as he makes clear in the afterword, the fact that he managed to complete this at all is basically an achievement unto itself. As for the quality of the story, it’s a slight tale about the restlessness of youth, the urbanization of a quiet seaside town, with some magical realism thrown in to spice things up.
Yosuke Yashiro is enjoying an ordinary summer that includes his traditional duties of looking after the “mermaid’s egg” that was entrusted to his family. Legend has it that an ancestor of his found it on the beach one day and in exchange for looking after it and a new one every sixty years, a mermaid promised him that the town would always enjoy a bountiful harvest of fish. Though Yosuke’s not sure how much stock should actually be put in this tale, his grandfather believes it wholeheartedly. As for his dad, he believes that the construction being done to turn the sleepy hamlet into a resort town is the only way for the community to stay relevant in this modern age. The “mermaid’s egg?” A curious object with a cute legend that makes for the perfect tourist trap. Yosuke doesn’t really like what his father’s doing with all this, but he can’t really go against him here and he’s also got the return of his childhood friend Nami to divert his attention as well. However, the current sixty-year deadline is coming up and who knows what the mermaid will think if she doesn’t get her egg back.
Here’s a fancy Japanese term for you: mono no aware. It’s used to describe the impermanence of things, how nothing lasts forever in this world. That’s the kind of feeling that Kon tries to capture in this work as Yosuke’s town is at a crossroads from the traditional fishing village they’ve always been to the seaside resort they may become. There are arguments from people on both sides of the equation, from the fishermen who are having their livelihoods threatened, to Yosuke’s father who sees this as the only way for the town to continue to exist. It’s a familiar argument and as it’s portrayed here, no one is really in the wrong here. Not even Kenji, the real estate developer who’s overseeing the project and takes a keen interest in the mermaid’s egg. He would’ve been an ideal villain for this story, but Kon subverts expectations here and makes him into a fairly reasonable man whose attraction to the object is driven more out of a childlike curiosity than any kind of malice.
Unfortunately that’s the only real twist in this narrative as everything plays out in a fairly straightforward, predictable, and low-key fashion. Yosuke spends most of the story caught between the expectations of his father and grandfather, only making a decisive choice towards the end because something needs to bring the narrative to a climax. The rest of the characters also conform to pleasant character types, like Yosuke’s easygoing friend Tetsu, Nami the “prodigal child” who has returned to the town after spending time in the city, and Yosuke’s spunky kid sister Maki. None of the cast come off as annoying or aggravating, they’re just as familiarly pleasant as the seaside town they inhabit.
There are subplots about the nature of the egg and the circumstances surrounding the untimely death of Yosuke’s mother to add interest to the overall narrative. Yet, it doesn’t add up to much in the end as the impending crisis is mostly averted and life goes on in the end. Even the business with the mermaid doesn’t feel as exciting as it should’ve been. Though Kon touches upon its “otherworldly” nature from time to time, the majority of the book is devoted to the real-life concerns of the townspeople making this aspect of the story feel like an afterthought. That makes it a problem when it comes time to reveal the true nature of the egg and the result feels considerably less awe-inspiring than one would expect.
Kon does capture the idyllic nature of his setting in the art, which understandably bears a strong influence from his mentor Katsuhiro Otomo (of “Akira” fame). It’s not very flashy work, but it fits the nature of the story he’s trying to tell and he’s good with the characters and their expressions. More interesting is the mangaka’s afterword, reprinted here from the reissue of the Japanese edition where he talks about the ungodly amount of stress he was under to serialize this in a weekly publication. Kon also mentions the clash of his expectations with what he thought the life of a manga creator would be like in contrast to what he wound up experiencing to amusing effect. Frankly, I think he sounds utterly credible here.
The afterword in general is a welcome bit of insight into Kon’s creative process and his life at that point in time. It is, however, somewhat unsettling to read about his experience with hepatitis in the wake of creating “Tropic of the Sea” and not think of parallels to the pancreatic cancer that took his life. Even though he’s gone now, Kon’s work is timeless and sure to be talked about and discussed for decades to come. As for his manga, this is a quaint little work that doesn’t really mark the arrival of a major creative force or indicate the greatness that is to come from the creator. Had it not been burdened by those expectations, I may have enjoyed it for the quiet little slice-of-life tale that it is.