Forty-eight-year-old Hiroshi Nakahara is a businessman with a love of alcohol and little time for his family. One day, in 1998, as he is returning home (hungover) from a business trip to Kyoko, he accidentally boards the wrong train and ends up traveling to Kurayoshi, the town in which he grew up and which he hasn’t visited for many years. With some time to kill before the next train to Tokyo, he wanders around, checking out the building that used to be his family’s shop and paying a visit to his mother’s grave. As he’s asking his mother, “Were you happy?” something mysterious occurs and Hiroshi wakes to discover that he’s back in his fourteen-year-old body but with all of his adult knowledge and wisdom intact. Not only that, the family shop and neighborhood has returned to its previous condition, his deceased mother and grandmother are alive, and the date is still four months before his father’s sudden disappearance.
At first, Hiroshi acts merely as an observer, attending classes and making mental notes on the eventual fates of some of the friends he encounters there. In time, he begins to feel a zeal for learning and exercise that he’d not possessed the first time through his adolescence and relishes a feeling of liberation from his various adult responsibilities. His accomplishments in sports and academics attract the notice of Tomoko Nagase, the prettiest girl in his class, another difference from his past. Nagase has big dreams and it’s in deciding to help her that Hiroshi begins to take a more active part in this second chance he’s been given, resolving too to prevent his father’s disappearance.
Hiroshi doesn’t have an easy time passing as a fourteen-year-old. Aside from his drastic scholastic improvement, he’s singularly unimpressed by some things adolescent boys tend to be keen on (like nudie mags and cigarettes), occasionally lets slip details that he shouldn’t yet know, and demonstrates far more perceptiveness about the adults in his family than he originally did, as we can see in flashbacks of his oblivious past self. His emotional reaction to being scolded by his mother again is very touching and there’s also a particularly nice scene toward the end of the volume where Hiroshi is given the opportunity to ask his grandmother how his parents met, information he’d evidently never thought to inquire about before.
It also seems as if Hiroshi’s experiences reliving his past are going to help him become a better person in the future. When Nagase confesses her feelings for him, he accepts, but it’s abundantly clear that he sees her as a daughter and is still thinking only of how he might help her. After their first date, during which they see a movie involving Men Having Grand Adventures, he insists that women can do the same, and reassures her that a time will soon come when women can be “wonderfully independent.” This is in marked contrast to his treatment of his real daughters; in one of the odd moments where Hiroshi experiences a disembodied glimpse of what’s going on in 1998, his sees his wife and eldest daughter, Ayako, discussing a boyfriend he knows nothing about and declaring that Hiroshi will never consent to let Ayako move into an apartment. “Obviously! A single girl your age can’t go living alone!” he thinks.
Jiro Taniguchi’s art is never anything short of gorgeous, and A Distant Neighborhood is like his other works in that it offers plenty of beautiful landscapes, detailed illustrations of buildings, and a middle-aged protagonist (at least at first). Facial expressions can be a little stiff at times, but I felt that emotion was better conveyed here than in The Quest for the Missing Girl.
The overall feel of the story is initially similar to The Walking Man in that Hiroshi is merely taking in his surroundings without interacting much. Eventually, though, it becomes the most emotional work by Taniguchi that I’ve read. It’s also seriously engrossing; I could’ve read another 200 pages easily.
Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.