Ichiko lives alone in a small farmhouse set in a basin at the foot of lushly wooded mountains. She grows rice and vegetables and gathers the bounty of the forest that surrounds her. She watches the wildlife come and go as she tends her fields and cooks her daily meals.
Okay, that’s not all there is to Igarashi Daisuke’s manga, Little Forest, but that’s most of it, and though you might not think so at first glance, it’s enough.
In the course of following Ichiko through her daily routine, we discover little tidbits that help explain how she came to this austere life: her absent father, her mother’s sudden disappearance, a relationship with a man in the city that “went sour.” Not much more detail emerges, just a comment in passing here and there, a few frames of flashback to her childhood days, a brief exchange with an old friend. Ichiko makes note of them, then carries on with her weeding, or harvesting, or woodcutting, or cooking. The impact of these revelations is somehow amplified by her calm attitude. Yeah, this happened…oh, it looks like those berries are ripe enough for jam now.
As I read, I found myself easing into the rhythm of her rural life, set to the metronome of sun and season rather than clock and schedule. Ichiko flows with the weather, acknowledging the minor inconveniences it brings and making necessary adjustments without much complaint. Some problems bring opportunities in tow. Hot, humid weather is good for making bread. Cold weather is a chance to enjoy sweet sake. Seasonal jobs pop up now and then, like a day spent relocating young trout at a hatchery—and the chance to dine on a few of them, freshly broiled, afterward. Yum.
I began to see that Ichiko lives in solitude, not isolation, and that’s an important distinction. She doesn’t live alone because she’s running away from her past, or because she despises society, or because she hates people. She enjoys the quiet serenity of the forest, the satisfaction of working with her hands, and the freedom of living independently. She savors life, and she loves her home and the land that surrounds it. She has neighbors who visit, and whom she visits in turn. They share favorite dishes and enjoy seasonal treats together. They assemble now and then as a community for holiday celebrations. Some tasks are too big for any one person to handle alone—they share the labor of planting and harvesting and cooking for festivals.
Very little conflict arises in the story. Ichiko has a couple of spats with her mother in the flashbacks, which she re-evaluates from a mature perspective. She has more trouble with cabbage moths, and mold, and the occasional bear. Again, this story is mostly about savoring the joys of small, simple things in life—appreciating what we too often take for granted.
Pictures and story complement each other well. The artwork is skilled, full of lovely, expressive detail, and it has a gentle poetry about it I find very attractive. It’s almost like a country version of Jiro Taniguchi’s The Walking Man, which I reviewed last year. Little Forest was nominated for the Osamu Tezuka Cultural Award in 2005. Other notable and award-winning works by Igarashi Daisuke include Witches, Children of the Sea (available on Amazon.com from Viz Media), and Saru.
Igarashi appends little anecdotes about his own rural life, supported with photos, sketches, and a recipe or two, to each chapter. Little Forest sprinkles enough “how-to” across its pages about preparing rustic foods that it could almost double as a cookbook, and various seasonal foods provide a thematic element for the stories.
Translated scans of Little Forest are available at MangaFox, sixteen chapters to date. Suitable for all ages, but if you’re not careful, you might learn something along the way about farming, cooking, nature, and the simple wonder of just living.