Quiet Country Café. A translation of Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou [literally: Record of a Yokohama Shopping Trip] by Ashinano Hitoshi. From Afternoon magazine, Kodansha, 1994-present.
For scanlations (that is translated and scanned copies of the original) see: http://ykk.misago.org/ (the first 11 or 12 volumes); http://tadpol.org/ykk/ ; http://www.cafealpha.org/ (the most recent, the former in zip form, the latter as html to read online)
My search for worthwhile manga has led me here. A recommendation from Dirk Deppey (editor of The Comics Journal) (himself having gotten it from Jog) for Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou which he described as Miyazaki drawing Porcellino stories. With a description like that one has to at least try the first volume. Before I knew it I’d read all I could find (that is, the whole story, 13 or so volumes and some chapters not yet in volumes).
This is a beautifully serene manga unlike any other I’ve seen. The story is that of Alpha a female android/robot (she seems human) who lives alone and runs a tiny cafe in the middle of nowhere. In an undetermined future, the world is dying off: people are fewer, cities have disappeared, and Japan (and perhaps the rest of the land) is sinking into the ocean. Where once towns thrived now there is only the late night glow of streetlights under the sea. As the story moves along we slowly see more of this future, but we never get any explanation for what happened, like much is this story, we must just observe, and take our pleasure in that.
Right in the beginning, Alpha meets an old man, who runs a gas station, and his young nephew. They become Alpha’s family of sorts and from there time passes. She meets other robots, makes friends, travels a bit, but, mostly, she stays home and waits for her rare customers (whom she always sits down with to talk) or goes out to observe, ride her scooter, talk, swim. Nothing much happens in this story by way of plot or excitement, but to say that life happens in it is not an understatement.
Through Alpha and her friends we see the world around her and learn about what it is to be human. As this is serialized in a magazine it is divided into many short chapters (130-some at this point). A single chapter of 16 pages (that seems to be the average) may be solely about Alpha and one of her friends sitting in her cafe and having a cup of coffee over conversation, or about a single evening looking up at a meteor shower. The observation and discovery of nature is a big part of this series as are small human interactions. There are no great romances, tragedies, or conflicts in this series, just small events.
Time passes throughout the series rarely with any direct sign, rather we notice it through the change of seasons or some line of dialogue. Characters grow up; children move away. The landscape changes. The stories do not exist in isolation, even over the course of years, there are events recalled and elucidated anew.
The artwork is beautiful. Often using the simplest of styles, Hitoshi can go to great levels of detail when needed. His landscapes are lush and riveting. His art is such that we can see the beauty of a scene along with the characters. He uses few panels per page; the layouts are simple and minimal. Full page drawings are often used, particularly for landscapes. While manga is often noted for its “decompressed” storytelling–the use of numerous panels to let a scene or event linger on the page–Hitoshi takes this style to an even higher level. There is no urgency to get anywhere, and this in itself is beautifully relevant to the story itself. Even when the world is ending and the human race is declining there is still time for looking at the stars, or enjoying the view from the top of a hill.
Don’t let my praise of the quietness of the story mislead you, there are a number of overarching storylines going on, it’s just that they develop so slowly and quietly that there is no tension built up to know the solutions to the mysteries offered. Questions like: Who is Alpha’s owner and where did he go? or What really happened to the world? remain unanswered, perhaps never to be answered, because some mysteries in life don’t have solutions.
I can’t recommend this manga highly enough. This is light years beyond almost all the manga being translated and published in the US, greatest thanks to the folks translating and scanning this for the English speaking readers.
For a sample chapter with some stunning but simple images, I’d recommend Chapter 127: Drops. Chapter 71: Valley Road shows a little more of the fantastical element of the series and the future landscape but also shows how toned down these elements are.