Exploring Tana Oshima’s “Unbound” Imagination

Set in the creatively-fertile netherworld where dreams, myths, and reality converge — and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that whatever “barriers” exist between them are fragile and transitory at best — Tana Oshima’s new “all-ages” comic, Unbound, takes readers on a journey unlike any other and solidifies her reputation as one of the most unique cartooning auteurs of our time. Here’s the thing, though : it’s not like she’s setting out to necessarily do any of that — and that’s part of what makes this work so special.

On the surface, the narrative that unfolds in this gorgeous self-published squarebound book is deceptively simple : two people strike up a friendship and decide to transform into a bird and a flower in order to spend their lives together seeing all that there is to see. But there are layers upon layers of meaning and import to unpack over, above, and beyond what’s happening on a liminal level, and to that end we find ourselves grappling with questions of identity, displacement, emotional bonding, the meaning of community and belonging, and even power dynamics and inequality — as with all things Oshima, the real journey is within, no matter how far afield events may take us.

Rendered in a heartfelt minimalist style on cream-colored paper and laid out in her traditional four-panel grids, Oshima is re-orienting her narrative thrust toward younger readers with this comic, true, but she does so in a way that feels expansive, rather than confining. Existential queries have always been her forte, but here she’s challenged herself to present them in such a way that anyone can understand their precepts and limn their boundaries without feeling challenged so much as invited to give them thorough-going consideration. On paper it may sound like much of this would “go above a child’s head,” or words to that effect, but in truth it probably takes a child’s more open and free mind to really “get” what she’s going for with much of this material, and it’s us old-timers who need to check our cynicism at the door if we want to understand and experience this in all its rich, understated fullness.

Which brings me back to what I was saying at the outset — this is a comic that has no particular ambitions to be anything other than a classic folkloric tale with a kind of timeless sensibility to it, but by adhering to that vision in a manner best described as entirely unforced yet equally unwavering, Oshima creates something as simply honest as it is indelible; a permanent memory that arrives like a gentle breeze and subsequently carries you with it. There is power in these pages — aesthetically, narratively, conceptually — but it is a power that draws you in as opposed to knocking you over.

In a pinch, then, I’d say the greatest quality of this work rests in its inherently seductive nature, which I’ll be the first to admit is a weird thing to say about a so-called “kids’ comic.” And yet as a descriptive, it absolute applies, as Oshima is clearly aiming to plant the seed or kernel of an idea in your mind here and to let you take it from there. Her story has a beginning, a middle, and an end — all clearly delineated and traditionally structured — but in the final analysis is all about providing an open-ended framework for readers, be they eight years old or 80, to not only draw their own conclusions from, but to follow in whatever directions ring true to them personally.

So — what do we have here, when we boil it down to its essentials? One of the finest comics of the year, absolutely — more importantly than that, though, a thing of beauty.

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Unbound is available for $8.00 from Tana Oshima’s website at https://dostoievskiswife.bigcartel.com/product/unbound

Review wrist check – Raven “Trekker 39” yellow dial/black ceramic bezel model on bracelet.

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