Therapy and Hope in the Wake of Disaster: An interview with ‘Tsunami Girl’ creators Kutsuwada Chie and Julian Sedgwick

By: Gabriel Leão May 12, 20230 Comments
The cover for Tsunami Girl, which features a fox on a board in the middle of a blue ocean with waves.

In the history of arts, there are many works that can be perceived as a way to cope with trauma, pain and other maladies. Classic manga like The Drifting Classroom and Barefoot Gen were influenced by the horrors their creators survived as children during World War II; punk series of the ‘80s and ‘90s channeled the frustrations of an abandoned youth culture; Japan Sinks: 2020 imagined a near-future on the brink of collapse. Another work that can be seen under such lights is the recent manga Tsunami Girl.  

Struggling with her confidence at school, fifteen-year-old Yuki leaves Britain to stay with her well-known manga artist grandfather in Japan. But the healing retreat is broken by the calamity of the East Coast Earthquake and the tsunami that afflicted the country in 2011, leading to her grandfather’s death. This is the story of the coming-of-age manga book Tsunami Girl, penned by British writer Julian Sedgwick and with art by mangaka Kutsuwada Chie, who was born in Japan and resides in the UK. 

The story sees the quarter-Japanese protagonist Yuki and her local friend, Taka, trying to cope with the ordeal that affects the island and the loss of their livelihoods.  For these two young adults, their reality has fallen into pieces, but they manage to carry on guided by resilience, optimism and camaraderie. Japanese folk tales and modern-day ghost stories are woven into this story about resilience and trauma, and Yuki emerges as a manga hero in her own right as she reaches for her bravery and overcomes the odds.

In an exclusive interview with Anime Feminist, Sedgwick and Kutsuwada spoke about the process to create this project, how they approached diversity considering gender and racial themes, the sensibility of portraying real life trauma, and how their work has been a healing experience to both and readers alike. 

The opening page of Tsunami Girl. It starts off wit ha traditional once upon a time and features water imagery from ancient japan and modern Japan. This includes a traditional Japanese home, a spirit-like character, and the forests of the coast of northern Japan.

Chie Kutsuwada

How did you come with the idea for Tsunami Girl?

All the ideas about the story of Tsunami Girl obviously came from the author Julian. So, I will tell you what made me accept this collaboration offer.

Julian had (and still has) this passion and sincereness toward the Great East Japan earthquake and the people who had suffered from it. I am usually very suspicious and careful about collaboration, especially toward some foreigners who want to talk about Japan. But Julian’s compassion is real. Also, that amount of emotion and contemplation towards any theme or topic is always very precious. I thought I could work comfortably with this kind of faithful author like him.

What were your inspirations when drawing Tsunami Girl?

As I mentioned in the previous section, I am very careful who I work with on what kind of theme. And this time I was extra careful because although I was not seriously affected by that earthquake, I was traumatized by it. I thought I was not able to take Julian’s offer casually. 

But I decided to try to trust him and as I read the whole story and the manga part script, I found myself going through hardship with those characters. I felt lost and encouraged with them. That is one of the most important things for me to work with any story. I need to feel the characters I draw near me. This happened with Tsunami Girl. I was inspired with the story and the characters to begin with. And it was almost like a healing session.

Japan is very traumatized by tsunamis and other natural disasters. How do you approach such a sensitive subject with your art?

I just try to be respectful and not to underestimate anything, especially with this kind of sensitive subject.

As a Japanese person, I have experienced quite a lot of earthquakes and other natural disasters such as typhoons. However, I have not experienced the worst. I think knowing this kind of thing is quite important. I know some but I do not know all. So, I do research and study on subjects sincerely and try to feel the character’s emotions.

The opening of a fairytale about a magical underwater boy

Tsunami Girl is a coming-of-age story. How do you work with this type of tale?

Everybody goes through coming-of-age.  I did or maybe I am still in it, embarrassingly!

So, I try to remember my experience from that time and at the same time, also use my imagination to be in someone’s, in this case, those young characters’ shoes. 

The protagonist is a girl, and we are living in a time where there is more demand for diversity on main characters. How do you perceive this debate?

Diversity is very important since I believe that creation should reflect something really happening in real life in some ways. Creators should be aware of it.

But at the same time, I think you should not add diversity in your creation as if it is an obligation. If you do so, it would be almost like a “fashion” diversity. As a creator, I try to think carefully about each character’s nature and its environment.  If the story and characters are convincing, diversity should come naturally. Unless the main topic of the story is talking about diversity, naturally inclusive is, I personally think, the best.

Having said that, I’m also aware that we are still on the stage of trying to add more diversity aspects because there are many who are ignored. I try to do things hoping everybody is naturally included.

You have adapted classics from Japanese and English literature and also worked on your own original material while traveling through different genres. What separates Tsunami Girl from your previous works?

I usually try to work with something I love and enjoy. But Tsunami Girl was something to do with what I fear. That is the biggest difference. This experience of working on Tsunami Girl expands my ability and also helps me to digest things which I usually avoid. 

Being a Japanese artist living in the UK, how do you relate to Tsunami Girl?

Julian told me that one of the keys in this story is a border, for example, of this world and the other world.

I have been in-between all the time since I moved to the UK. I feel like I do not belong anywhere but at the same time can belong anywhere if I want to. 

In this sense, I can sympathize with the protagonist who is a British girl having a Japanese grandfather and also, even I can feel a bit for a character called Half Wave, who is in between reality and imagination.

What do you believe to be the lessons that Tsunami Girl will leave to its readers?

I am not sure if “lesson” is the best word, but I hope its readers can feel that it might be possible to regain positivity even after a very sad time. I believe that knowing and facing your fear will help you to go on.

Julian Sedgwick

How did you formulate the ideas for this story?

I had very close, long-term family friends living close to the radiation evacuation zone declared after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Every day they sent me email updates about the uncertainty around the radiation, the debate about whether to evacuate, and the constant aftershocks. I had been formulating a “Zone” story for some time, and—with close ties to Japan and friends in the Tohoku region—the story sprang to mind: a young person facing up to their fears, trying to find their identity, and risking everything to make a journey into the radiation Evacuation Zone. The idea of a manga superhero was there right from the start, but it took a long time to work out whose superhero that was! Originally it was Grandpa who created Half Wave, and the grandchild started life as a boy… After that it was loads of research, on what I’ll approach more later, and the usual process of trial and error, looking for a way to weave many threads of story together and make the manga and prose fit together.

What are your influences from literature and arts in general?

As a child I devoured stories from and about East Asia. In an age that was largely pre-manga in the UK, those stories were traditional myths and legends of Japan, China, and Tibet. Being a slightly strange child, I also developed a huge interest in Taoism and Zen Buddhism, and all of that led me to study East Asian Studies and Philosophy at Cambridge University. In my reading in general I gravitated to coming-of-age stories and memoirs, particularly of outsider figures— probably as I never felt I fitted anywhere myself! 

A huge influence was hanging around my father’s arts and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) schools. I never left England as a young child, but was surrounded by culture from around the world, and watched my dad project great masterworks of cinema by directors such as [Akira] Kurosawa and [Andrei] Tarkovsky. As a writer I am influenced as much by filmmakers and painters as writers, but have a particular love of classic short stories by the likes of [Anton] Chekhov, [Ivan] Turgenev, Shiga Naoya and [Yasunari] Kawabata.

How was the research process for Tsunami Girl?

I knew I had to travel to the heart of the evacuation zone, meet as many people as possible who had evacuated and re-settled around there, and experience the particular atmosphere of towns that had suffered triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and radiation accident. I also felt I needed to get tacit “permission” to write this story. The people I met in Odaka, Minamisoma were not only enthusiastic and hugely supportive, but have become important friends—I’m typing this sitting in the ryokan where I always stay. 

I have been visiting for five years now, but it felt strangely like home right from the start sitting in a temporary pop-up community café and talking to the first residents to return. Their stories, determination, and resilience in spite of trauma is so inspiring. After that I did a lot of reading around Tohoku culture and myths, technical and factual research and sending follow up questions to my friends here whenever I needed something clarifying.

You are a white male writing about a non-white girl. What were the thoughts you had about approaching this character properly?

I thought about this a lot and wanted to take great care. Generally, I gravitate to writing female characters—in three books, the central character started out as male, but gradually (or suddenly) it became obvious that they needed to be female. I don’t quite know why—to be honest, growing up, I spent a lot of time feeling I maybe wasn’t quite in the right gender… maybe that has something to do with it. I have also spent 25 years working as a therapist and, as my clients are 75% female, feel I have listened intently to a lot of experiences from that perspective.

For Yuki’s one quarter non-whiteness, I also knew that she would be largely an outsider in Japan—and never quite at home in her country of birth either. I spoke to children on my school visits who were teased or bullied for their looks, or who just felt that they struggled to find their place. And beyond that I employed a sensitivity reader, who was a tiny bit older than Yuki at the time of the disaster, and female and Japanese, to give me clear feedback. Chie-san’s approval was hugely important too.

And whilst race and gender are so powerfully defining, of course, I also think that Yuki’s defining pre-occupation is her struggle with anxiety and panic attacks. Some of that comes from her need to find a place to belong, and some may just be part of that universal story of sensitive people trying to cope with the world. I certainly know that be it as a child (and adult), as a parent, as a therapist.

two people looking at a destroyed house

Your main character is a “quarter Japanese girl growing up in the UK.” How do you work with these both heritages and locations?

I spoke with children (and their parents) who were part Japanese, part English, and growing up in the UK. They all shared that sense of being a little “different” both at home and when visiting Japan. “Cool Japan” can lend these children some credibility with a certain group at school, but they can still feel that they are slightly apart. Every version of this story is unique, of course, but there were many similarities in these children’s experiences. Yuki has half of one foot in Japan we could say, and longs to put more weight on that heritage. It was gratifying to be approached by many parents after Tsunami Girl was published who said that the book accurately described their children’s experiences. And a relief…

She has a very strong relationship with her grandfather. What is the meaning of him to her and why do you believe kids tend to gravitate towards grandparents?

This was a relationship I had been keen to write about for some time. I’ve heard so many moving accounts of this kind of relationship in my therapy work, and in other writers’ novels and memoirs! For me though it is a second-hand experience, as all my grandparents died before I was born. Grandpa Jiro represents everything Yuki wants to be: confident in his own skin, thoroughly Japanese but a bit of a rebel, and a manga genius! He is the classic “nail that refuses to be hammered down,” and carves his own way through life. 

On top of that, I suppose often grandparents have more time for their grandchildren than stressed, hard-working parents. (Speaking as a hard-working parent myself!) More philosophically, I wonder if children and grandparents, being closer to either the beginning and the end of life and less dulled by the responsibilities of mid-life, are more tuned in to the things that matter. The big questions of life and death…

The great Miyazaki Hayao said that his young female characters could just be friends with their male counterparts without having to romance them as expected in many media products. How do you feel about that?

I certainly agree with almost anything Miyazaki has to say! He has carved his own path, often ignoring classic story-telling tropes to create his unique works, often with female leads. I didn’t want Yuki and Taka to walk straight into some kind of romance—at the same time, being the age they are, the question of romance or attraction can’t be entirely out of the picture. It will cross both their minds, and they move through the story negotiating that…

a seaside inari shrine at night

Tsunamis are very traumatizing to Japanese people and others living in places where they wreaked havoc. How to deal with that in a sensible way?

This is a huge question. Again, I spent a lot of time interviewing tsunami survivors, and the people who have cared for them or helped rebuild their communities. You have to acknowledge the almost unimaginable trauma and suffering of the (ongoing) disaster in Fukushima, whilst also showing that you often come across genuine humor, hope and positivity in the recovery towns. I have seen the trauma reflected in people’s eyes whilst talking about loss and suffering, and also seen genuine moments of joy and triumph. Across the five years I have been visiting Fukushima I have seen that evolve and change… 

I wanted all of that to be reflected in the story: sadness, shock, terror, humor, and most of all, ultimately, hope. So many people here in Tohoku want to emphasize that this is the message they would like people to hear. Generally, there is agreement that what a huge disaster like 3.11 does is disrupt the usual flow of life; it creates huge problems and suffering, but also opens up a chance to build new ways of life. One of the first things I was told on my first afternoon in Odaka was “we want to build a new community, not rebuild the old one.”

Do you believe Tsunami Girl can help people cope with their pain related to traumas caused by natural disasters and other issues?

Maybe that’s not one for me to answer. But I believe Chie-san found it therapeutic to work on the book, and many people have come up to me after reading the book to say Tsunami Girl helped them to cope with their own issues. For example, one reader came up to me, on an evening when we were shortlisted for an award, and told me that reading the book had helped her deal with the death of her own beloved grandmother. We didn’t win the award, but I went home feeling very glad indeed. 

The story seems to translate its emotions to other tragic settings too, for example the war in Ukraine. Last month I met a Ukrainian librarian who had to flee Zaporizhzhia at a moment’s notice, with Russian tanks on the street and the nuclear plant on fire. She said she felt the book really resonated with her and her teenage children’s experience…

Recently, my family suffered the tragic and untimely death of my brother. It was shocking and traumatic in nature, but almost the first thought in my mind was that I had to get back to my friends in Fukushima as soon as possible. Their inspiration continues to help me, and here I am now, sitting in the Futabaya Ryokan, Odaka, Minamisoma, Fukushima, typing these answers, and hugely grateful that my initial idea brought me here.

About the Author : Gabriel Leão

Gabriel Leão work as a journalist and is based in São Paulo, Brazil. He has written for outlets in Brazil, the UK, Canada and the USA such as Vice, Ozy Media, Remezcla, Al Jazeera, Women’s Media Center, Clash Music, Yahoo! Brasil, Anime Herald, and Brazil’s ESPN Magazine. He also holds a Master’s degree in Communications and a post-grad degree in Foreign Relations.

Read more articles from Gabriel Leão

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