Manga Road begins right outside of the train station and spans across the city. Various life-sized iron anime figurines are bolted to the ground. Ranging from superheroes to beloved characters, these structures stand out in the aftermath, still brightly colored. The road ends at the Mangattan museum, or Ishinomori Manga Museum, which was built in 2001. The edifice, comically shaped like a bubble and UFO saucer, boasts of Ishinomori’s original artwork, unique exhibits, and displays of Cyborg 009, characters from Android Kikaider, Robocon, and many more.
Ishinomaki is a quiet town whose main attraction is Manga Road and Mangattan (石ノ森萬画館), an oblong-shaped museum dedicated to Ishinomori. The city celebrates Shotaro Ishinomori (石ノ森 章太郎), a mangaka, or manga writer, renown for his creation of 1970’s popular anime Kamen Rider, among other long-running series. Ishinomori is often compared to American Marvel comic book writer, Stan Lee, an equally prolific creator of Spiderman and other heroes.
I trundled into the Ishinomaki JR station dripping sweat and smelling like karaage (から揚げ)—fried chicken. Even three months after the earthquake and tsunami, trains still couldn’t run directly into the city due to reconstruction. Relief workers and I transferred several times and then took a tightly packed bus whose exhaust fumes smelled crispy and tantalizing. Shooting footage of tsunami relief for a documentary—we were naïve to think we could come away unaffected.
Ishinomaki was one of the hardest hit cities by the March 11th Tohoku (northeastern region) earthquake that rocked Richter scales at a 9.0 magnitude. The nation of Japan is structurally prepared for earthquakes, experiencing around 1000 shakings a year. However, the tsunami utterly devastated numerous cities in the Iwate province with waves up to 23 feet tall. Ishinomaki was one of these cities, with slightly more ironic survivors.
I came to cover the unseen heroes behind relief work, but found a city filled with superheroes that could only watch when water struck– ironic and heart breaking. Before the volunteers and I hit the little blue bridge over the Kitakami-gawa River, we had seen enough to know the Mangattan and everything close to the water would be in horrible shape.
It is disturbing to see what devastation remains after three months. Makeshift memorials litter the roads along with personal items like house slippers, pillows, tea mugs, and a Stevie Wonder CD. Clothes are strung haphazardly through the branches of uprooted trees. The city is eerily quiet save the lone cry of a bento girl outside of the supermarket. There is the faint hum of tractors lifting debris and knocking rotting houses down. It’s strange to see a developed nation look like this.
I am humbled by the quiet resilience of Japan as a nation, because it’s far from a passive silence. The residents of Ichinomaki remain; they continue to rebuild despite a lack of government funds and organized assistance. Most help comes from church volunteers, small non-profits, but mainly local hands: neighbors, friends, strangers that just want to serve. These are the heroes that find, not irony, but solace in the silent figurines. These monuments of Ishinomori’s work are fond reminders of the city’s hey-day, and a constant source of comfort, inspiration, and even aid. As of July 2011, there have been various fundraisers thrown by the Mangattan and a steady stream of visitors returning to the city.
Stan Lee once said “While no one is expected to leap tall buildings in a single bound, our aspiring heroes will be tested on their courage, integrity, self-sacrifice, compassion and resourcefulness – the stuff of all true superheroes.” Rebuilding is, for many, a logical next step of survival. However, rebuilding a city as a community—that is a feat of heroism. Witnessing the diligence, strength, and generosity of the collective community, left me with a deeper respect for the individuals I met in Japan. As the people of Japan rebuild, as Ichinomaki residents raise the city back, these silent heroes on Manga Road will remain and inspire others around them. They are figures of hope for things to come.
Our prayers go out to all the families and people of Japan affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Tachiagare, Nippon. We stand with you, Japan.
By: Christina Chou