Henshin is a collection of short stories by manga artist/writer Ken Niimura that provides some awesome peeks into Japanese life.
SLICES OF LIFE
If you are familiar with Ken Niimura’s work on I Kill Giants (and if you’re not, you should be), then Henshin, his latest OGN to be brought into the English language, will delight you to no end. This is an anthology graphic novel made up of thirteen individual stories that provide slice-of-life peeks into Japanese contemporary lifestyles and traditions. Several of the short stories feature Niimura himself as the protagonist and deal heavily with his love of cats (which in and of itself is sweetly reminiscent of many other manga and anime feline familiars such as Sailor Moon and Kiki’s Delivery Service).
Niimura does an excellent job at tempering the emotional through lines of the stories in Henshin. For example, the opening story is called No Good and deals with some serious subject matter that climaxes in a gun fight. This tale is quickly followed up by Kitty and Me that is nothing short of laugh-out-loud hilarious even with the brief amount of words he puts in each panel. The stories are told as skillfully as they are laid out – never a superfluous word to be found in almost 300 pages of OGN.
As briefly mentioned above, some of the characters in Henshin appear across multiple narratives. Ken, for example, and a young girl named Nat-Chan who we first meet in the aforementioned No Good also get the honour of closing out Henshin in Shut Up. Even though she never speaks in her appearances, Nat-Chan is a striking character whose complicated past and family life makes for compelling reading indeed.
Henshin’s adaptation into the English language was handled by translator Ivy Yukiko Ishihara Oldford who does the job with great aplomb. The language never feels forced or crippled by the fact that it has been changed into a completely alien language that shares none of the same roots as the one it was natively written in. Well done indeed.
Niimura pays a lot of attention to detail in Henshin that might be missed in the first read through. The title itself, for example, Henshin is the Japanese word for Transform and the theme of transformation is prevalent throughout. Beginning at the surface, each story transforms into the following, the characters that do reappear undergo emotional arcs throughout their time spent in the graphic novel and from beginning to end of their respective stories each protagonist undergoes an emotional change. Granted, these changes are usually simple (insecurity to confidence, fear to love, grief to acceptance), but given the limited amount of pages each story takes up (the average being about 20 pages), it’s a pretty outstanding achievement.
Henshin is charming, it’s whimsical, it’s sad and it’s funny. As an original graphic novel Ken Niimura has presented all the themes I look for in foreign (for lack of a better word), graphic novels.
SIMPLE AND CARTOONISH
Writer Ken Niimura is also on the art of Henshin as well. Again, those familiar with I Kill Giants will both recognize and see growth in his work on these pages. Characters and settings are rendered with the briefest number of lines possible and while his style takes obvious notes from what North Amerians have come to think of as mange/anime style, it is unique enough to really feel special. Having the panels rendered in black and white lends an independent charm to the overall product that isn’t seen in many Western indie comics – just something else that makes Henshin very, very special.
Niimura takes the chance in Henshin to pay with his personal aesthetic. The stories about Nat-Chan in particular are rendered deliberately with a very polished final product on the page, whereas when we take a look into Ken’s personal life (as he presents it to the readers), the linework gets sketchy and characters tend toward the cartoonish. The more somber the subject matter, the more thoughtful and profound the linework, the more humourous, the more outlandish the product that hits the panel.
This subtle shift in narrative tone mirrored in the art speaks to Niimura’s strength as a storyteller. Henshin may be made up on individual short stories, but the anthology is piece of art crafted with immense thoughtfulness and attention to detail on behalf of the creator.
THE BOTTOM LINE: OUTSTANDING OGN
Henshin is a beautiful original graphic novel that the English-reading public is lucky to be able to experience. It’s as pretty as the stories are entertaining and for 300 pages you are absolutely getting it at a steal. You owe it to yourself to pick this book up and see how sequential art is rendered in different parts of the world.