As a boy, author Allen Say found himself navigating the urban jungle of Tokyo by himself. His parents had divorced and sent him to live with his grandmother. But that relationship, too, proved flammable, and it was decided what was best for everyone involved was to allow Say to live by himself. He took residence in a shabby 12 by 12-foot room with little more than a light bulb and a toilet in the way of amenities.
I lit a candle and turned on the overhead light, and thought about the day. Often I read the books I liked by candlelight. Grandmother would never have allowed it. Also she never let me stay up late. It was good to live alone.Say decided to take his extraordinary circumstances one step further by seeking out the famous cartoonist Noro Shinpei as his mentor. In The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice, he shares the autobiographical story of that apprenticeship, which paved the way for his later career as an author and illustrator.
Shinpei proceeds to train Say in art and illustration. But more than that, the cartoonist serves as a father figure for the boy over the next three years, serving as a grounding influence as the boy navigates the vicissitudes of friends, female classmates, family tensions and the real world without the protective buffer that parents typically provide.
We learn that his mother was disowned by her family when she married Say's father, a Korean. But war has changed everything. Say comes from an old samurai family but World War II left his grandparents impoverished; his mother, who owns a small cosmetic shop in nearby Yokohama, must now support his grandmother.
Say paints his life in clear, undiluted strokes. He doesn't soften his experiences — such as an almost casual act of self-mutilation by Say's friend and fellow apprentice, the fiery Tokida, or the sad, remote relationship that Say has with his parents — nor does he thrust them upon us. He simply lays them out for us to absorb with his thoughtful, measured writing style.
In the process, we, as readers, get a glimpse of what life was like in post-World War II-Japan: the bombed out building scattered throughout the city, the encroaching influence of Western culture, the constant smoking, the bustling train stations.
This is a lovely, understated story of a Say's early experiences, many of which have gone on to greatly influence him as a person and artist. In one interview, Say said:
I was incredibly lucky, because Noro Shinpei recognized I was searching for a father and he adopted me. To this day, I am still his child. He is still living and is eighty-five years old. We continue to communicate. I send him all the books I do and he still critiques my work. He was only thirty-five years old when I met him.Say speaks more on the topic in this video: