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From The Asian Reporter, V17, #31 (July 31, 2007), page 20.
Wise and candid
The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice
By Allen Say
Houghton Mifflin, 1994
Hardcover, 149 pages, $13.95
By Josephine Bridges
In his foreword to the 1994 reissue of "my homage to my great teacher (sensei), Noro Shinpei," Allen Say describes a visit to his mentor three years after The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice was originally published in 1979. At a Shinto shrine they visit together, Say’s mentor prays that Say will become a great artist; Say prays that his teacher will live a long life. A decade later, when Say sends Sensei a copy of his most recently published book, Grandfather’s Journey, Noro Shinpei writes that it is "a splendid work" by "a mature artist," and concludes, "Next year I will be an old man of eighty, but I plan to go on living awhile, to watch your craft deepen."
Would that all students had teachers like Noro Shinpei and all mentors had apprentices like Allen Say. On the first day of his apprenticeship, the thirteen-year-old narrator finds it "exciting, and a little eerie, to watch one of the best-known comic serials come to life in front of me." But when the master wants the young man he has nicknamed "Kiyoi" to begin working on the backgrounds of his cartoons right away, he feels as if he is "going into a duel with a real sword, without having gone through any training with a bamboo stick." And just as quickly as the narrator finds himself learning about art, he is also learning about life.
"Pay attention to all that goes on around you," Sensei tells Kiyoi. When Tokida, Noro Shinpei’s eccentric- going-on-unstable senior apprentice, takes Kiyoi along on a political demonstration, the narrator describes the throng as "unstoppable like the flow of lava, the marching army ants, mindless and devastating." When the young man asks his neighbor, karate expert Mr. Kubota, for lessons in the martial art, he is told, "The first law of karate is to run. When you see a fight coming, run the other way."
Three years into his apprenticeship, when the narrator agonizes over his father’s offer to take him to America, it is Sensei who urges the young man to go. "Let your beloved child journey," he quotes an old saying. "Travelling is the greatest teacher of all."
Most of Allen Say’s books are 32 pages long, so it’s a pleasure to savor this longer work. There are only two illustrations, on the front and back cover, but, as always, they add visual beauty to the author’s wise and candid words.