The GeeksverseREVIEW | Wandering Island (Dark Horse Manga)

REVIEW | Wandering Island (Dark Horse Manga)
Published on Monday, July 18, 2016 by

Kenji Tsuruta’s Wandering Island is a charming, beautifully-illustrated story about one woman’s obsessive pursuit of a fantastical goal.

wandrisPublication details:

  • Paperback (with wraparound cover)/black & white with color plates/$14.99 (US)
  • NOTE: Book is oriented in right-to-left reading format
  • Due in stores 13 July 2016
  • Story & art: Kenji Tsuruta
  • “Mikura Amelia is a free-spirited young woman who lives alone with her cat and operates an air delivery service, flying her vintage seaplane to Japan’s small island communities located hundreds of miles out in the Pacific. When her beloved grandfather passes away, she discovers he left her an undelivered parcel, addressed to an island that doesn’t exist… or does it? To answer the question, Mikura flies off in search of the truth behind the Wandering Island!”

Wandering Island‘s plucky young female protagonist, small-town setting, and fascination with aircraft and flight makes comparisons to certain entries in the legendary Hayao Miyazaki’s manga and anime oeuvre convenient but Kenji Tsuruta’s graphic novel—originally published in 2011 in Japanese by Kodansha and presented for the first time in English by Dark Horse Manga—really deserves to be examined and appraised on its own merits.

Wandering Island‘s story about a young air delivery pilot’s fixation on finding a mysterious landmass that appears in Japan’s southern waters once every few years is a fitting allegory for Tsuruta’s manga career thus far. His manga output is infrequent and irregular, and it has been twenty years since the English-language publication of Spirit of Wonder, his previous graphic novel-length comics work.

The sporadic nature of Tsuruta’s manga work has done little to dim his reputation as one of the manga’s premier talents, given that his projects, when they do come out, feature an exacting attention to detail and an outstanding level of illustrative and storytelling skill that stand apart even in a national comics tradition notable for the virtuosity of its best sequential artists.

There are no mindbending plot twists to be found in Wandering Island or attempts to shock the reader with the outlandish, no deconstruction of established manga techniques, no storytelling sleight-of-hand or pretense of some larger metatextual conceit beyond the basic metaphor of its underlying theme of the pursuit of the ideal and the ineffable. What’s to be found here is gimmick-free, elite comics craft as expressed through Tsuruta’s inkwork, page/panel composition, and the effective use of gesture, pose, and facial expression within the boundaries of his art style.

Like his better-known contemporaries Makoto Yukimura (Vinland Saga, Planetes) and Kaoru Mori (A Bride’s Story, Emma), Tsuruta has managed to find a rare working balance between illustrative detail and storytelling clarity. Where the conventional thinking is that there is a push-and-pull between the two and that emphasis on one takes away from the other, the almost extreme level of the former in Wandering Island actually serves to focus the visual narrative. Employed by a less talented visual storyteller, the amount of linework and rendering in this comic would have resulted in an overwhelmingly cluttered mess. In Tsuruta’s hands, however, the details provide scenes with a further sense of depth and “lived-in” naturalism.

The commitment to detail in the book’s art is also paralleled in its writing and conceptualization. The excellent afterword by editor Carl Gustav Horn sheds light on the painstaking amount of research that went into the work and Tsuruta’s slavish devotion to accurately depicting the story’s setting, both in its geography and its cultural atmosphere. This behind-the-scenes insider knowledge isn’t necessary to enjoy the book, of course, but it does help paint a complete picture of the process and creative philosophy that undergirds Wandering Island.

Wandering Island ends with a promise of further installments, but if it turns out to be the only entry in the putative series (given Tsuruta’s record of published work), it should lose none of its luster—it’s a brilliantly executed standalone read. Highly recommended.

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