The first year at TUA has come to an end and Yatora is skint! However, Saeki-sensei is looking for part-time tutors for the community art classes she runs (as well as still teaching at his old high school) and Yatora finds himself teaching the youngest students. This turns out to be far more of a challenge than he initially imagines (as any teacher will know!) but as it’s a complete change from the pressure of the hothouse atmosphere at TUA, it eventually turns out to be something of a refreshing break. That’s not to say there aren’t difficulties to overcome working with the children (and their parents, because he soon learns that it’s the parental expectations – or lack of them – that affect how the children express themselves).
After one of the children, the ebullient Shoya, accuses Yatora of not even knowing anything about Picasso, Yatora gets back in touch with Hashida (the tall student with the braids he met at Ooba-sensei’s prep school classes) to ask for advice. The two go off to Hakone to a Picasso exhibition together and Hashida, intrigued by Yatora’s work at Saeki-san’s classes, joins the part-time staff.
Volume 12 sees Yatora and his fellow students returning to TUA to embark on the second year of their course – and to meet again the redoubtable Professor Inukai who’ll be directing their studies. Yatora is already thinking that he doesn’t fit in at TUA although he realizes that he’s not the only student in his year to feel that way. Could it be the university and the teaching staff that are at fault?
Things don’t get off to a good start when the students are told by Inukai-sensei to submit five hundred drawings in a relatively short time as their first assignment. This, Yatora, realizes, means drawing non-stop without thinking about or planning what he’s doing, which goes against all his instincts as an artist. Nevertheless, he fulfils the brief, only to be coldly assessed and dismissed once more. “How long,” Inukai asks him, “will you keep doing the same thing?” For someone as self-questioning as Yatora, this response is soul-destroying and perhaps this is why he finds himself so intrigued by an artists’ commune ‘No Marks’. While he’s in full self-denial mode after the professor has given the theme of ‘Guilt’ for their next assignment, the welcoming, non-judgmental atmosphere within the commune becomes a place of healing for him. Or is it a cocoon in which to hide from reality? He stops attending classes at TUA. Only chatting with the commune’s leader, the quiet yet charismatic Kirio Fuji (Fuji-san) gives him a new insight into what art means for him.
So what is ‘No Marks’? Yatora’s fellow students are debating among themselves. “An anti-authoritarian art collective,” says Yakumo Murai. “In their case the authorities are the rich politicians, and art universities like TUA… It’s a place where anyone can freely enter and leave.” And then come the words that are the most meaningful to Yatora and still resonate with him once he’s in situ. “It’s the kind of place that would look pretty appealing… to someone who’s getting fed up with university.”
Is Yatora fed up with TUA? He put so much hard work into getting his place. Have the harsh and critical words of Inukai-sensei made him doubt his abilities once too often? He’s always been open to the advice of his teachers, hoping he can learn from them how to improve – but he’s reached an impasse. Maybe discussing topics that are mystifying to him with Fuji-san, like Western Art History, will help him to sort out his thoughts. No wonder he finds himself thinking, Wow. The atmosphere is dazzling. Everyone is so nice. And I’ve even been able to talk to some pretty amazing people. It’s like a dream. But, if it’s a dream, he knows that at some stage he’ll have to wake up and confront reality…
Two more insightful, compelling volumes of Blue Period show us Yatora growing and maturing as an artist and as a person too, having to deal with unsympathetic, even hostile tutors; Inukai is especially terrifying, his cover portrait on Volume 12 reinforcing his cold, gimlet stare and his implacable attitude. No wonder time spent with Fuji-san is so much more rewarding for the young artist. (Or is he smitten? She’s unconventional, pretty and she has time to talk with him – who wouldn’t find her attractive?)
Tsubasa Yamaguchi’s thought-provoking look at what it means to study and make art today (through the eyes of her endearing protagonist Yatora) is just as engrossing now that Yatora is in his second year and questioning everything about what he’s doing. Her art continues to use many different techniques to tell the story so each page is interesting; the double-page spread when Yatora is doing some of his five hundred sketches on a subway train is especially intriguing, inviting the viewer to look really closely at the images. Filled with twenty-four small panels of equal size, each one showing an eye (Yatora’s) with the scene reflecting the passengers that he’s observing and sketching (except for one where he blinks). The following two-page spread shows these glimpses transformed into his sketches, taped to a wall.
As in earlier volumes, there are four 4-koma strips at the end (in Volume 11 about the children and teachers at Saeki’s Art Academy and in Volume 12 about Fuji-san, leader of No Marks and three of the commune members) as well as translator Ajani Oloye’s helpful translation notes. The splash pages and colour pages also help to bring added variety and humour to the main chapters. By Volume 13, we’ll have caught up with Japan, so it may be quite a long while before we get to see a fourteenth volume of this very special ongoing series.
Once again, Tsubasa Yamaguchi brings us believable, complex characters and situations that will resonate with anyone who’s undertaken a course in the arts. She shares many challenging ideas about art education and how it’s taught (can it be taught?) – and Volume 11 makes fascinating reading for anyone working with children (including parents!)
A nice touch is that Yatora’s parents are still quietly understanding and supportive of their only son; when he wanders back home after two weeks away in the commune, they merely look on, musing that perhaps he’s been staying with a girlfriend…
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