Samurai Struggles in the Shadow of Jewish Life

Samurai in the Shadow of Jewish Life

For a samurai named Oda, dealing with the death of his wife and raising a spirited daughter and son proves to be an immense challenge. Throw in a bloody clan war with a neighboring town, and these struggles combine together to bring out the best and worst of both his family and his clan. In the recently released graphic novel Never Forget, Never Forgive, a samurai struggles with a brutal history and a sinister secret that not even his sword can remedy. Created in the tradition of samurai epics such as Throne Wolf & Cub and Throne of Blood, Never Forget, Never Forgive takes traditional samurai drama and takes it in a new direction.

Inspired by his own own upbringing in Israel, Rami Efal’s Never Forget, Never Forgive takes the lessons of Jewish life and tells them in the setting of feudal Japan. The Jewish mantra of “Never Forget, Never Forgive” is given new truths when transplanted into the foreign setting and foreign soil of historic Japan, and Efal tries to understand and interpret his own thoughts regarding those lessons.

As a recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Efal created this graphic novel while in a two year residence at a NYC Zen center and serialized the comic at Now, after completing the work he’s taking it to print form – and self-publishing it via the online service Newsarama talked to him shortly after the book’s launch.

Newsarama: When people hear the title of this book, “Never Forgive, Never Forget”, the phrase is very much associated with the Jewish struggle during and after World War 2. What do you say about that?

Rami Efal: The core of the book is how do we go beyond this mentality of “Never Forget, Never Forgive.” Still, we all start right in the middle of it. As I found myself here in New York, far away from the country I grew up in, I was surprised to see how so much of how much the “Israeli” in me is based on resistance, exclusion, grudge and fear, unresolved from a history of conflict, which overshadows the abundance of vitality and virtues that this old tradition and wisdom can offer the world and the future.

The title came very late in the process, a few days before I sent it to press. The process of making this book taught me to trust what rises, and ask questions later. As the story took its final form, I saw it was about one thing: the way I perpetuate grudge, conflict and anger, and ultimately hurt myself and others because I don't know how to let go. What do I mean by “let go”? Most people think that means to forget the pain and its source. No. It means to understand what it means to “be angry”, to be blameful, to be hurt -- How it feels, not in my head in words and narratives, but in my body. When I am angry, what does it feel like? What happens when I experience it in the body and not give in to naming it “Anger” or thinking of how unjust this situation is. Who is to blame now? Absolutely no one. There is no enemy. To some, this sounds either simplistic or new-agey, but really, all of the conflicts on the planet RIGHT NOW stem from both victim and oppressors looking to fulfill a fantasy -- the victim wishes the oppressor will disappear, and the oppressor wishes the victim would have never existed. And everyone, on either side, simply operates from one sense of grudge against the universe. It is a disempowering state-of-mind which absolves me of taking responsibility over my reality, my life. If reality is more important to me than what I think about it, any blame game becomes obvious and simply unnecessary. Can I simply forgive the reality that I am a part of, without wishing it to be different?  Once as I was watching a documentary about Palestinians resistance soldiers, an image flashed in my mind -- it was of my grandfather, in his late teens, joining the Hungarian resistance against the Nazis, stories he had told me himself. I told this at the Dialogue Project group, a gathering of Israelis and Palestinians. "How dare you compare?!" A Jewish woman shouted and left the room. I simply see a direct connection from the hurt and the anger of my grandparents, transmitted to my mother and father, and onto me and a generation of young men and women who now wage war against another people, under the slogan "Not another holocaust!" and with a tremendous sense of entitlement.  I Also have a German friend whose father was a reluctant soldier fighting the Russians in WW2, and whose grandfather was an adamant Nazi. She is holding so much pain over her past, sadness and vulnerability in her – and that is exactly what we, Israelies, Palestinians, Germans, everyone, have in common.

Even if I believe I am self-righteous, if I perpetuate anger, violence and confusion within me, then I perpetuate anger, violence, and confusion in the universe, period. I am interested in leaping out of this cycle. How do I do that? That is what this book is about.

Nrama: Why’d you decide to appropriate it for this story set in feudal Japan?

Efal: While I was in Bezalel in 2000, Israel's dominant art university, I got this assignment in graphic design class, where we had to design a poster, using a picture of ourselves, a picture of one of our parents at the same age, and one paragraph of text. Film posters fascinated me, so I created a mock one for a fictitious production of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon III. I included a picture of my 25-years-old father, a paratrooper lieutenant, and one of myself dressed as a geisha! This was followed with a short description of the story, which was the initial spark of narrative that twisted and turned and landed as Never Forget.

It was the only setting that appeared and felt appropriate to the story. Perhaps it was a safe distance for me to address these personal issues, but historical Japan has this fantasy fairly land sense to me, it's my never-ever land. Very early on in my life I resonated not only with the aesthetics of Japan, but also with its heart and its brave acknowledgment of impermanence, expressed in their classic arts, poetry and culture. I resonated with the emotional reservation contrasted with the intense appreciation of nature, and these resonated much with the story that took form. Like any tradition, it is sometimes expressed and understood as oppressive, with their strong model of manly samurai and feminine, similarly emotionally blank, geishas. These seem to be an extreme and simplistic expression of what I saw around me in the Spartan sense of Israel that I felt growing up. Everyone's dad has fought in a war, and I knew that I was expected, too, one day, to shoot dead an Egyptian or a Syrian soldier, while not understanding why and what everyone is fighting about, especially when it was so clear to me that if that solider and myself choose to, we can share this life in peace.

Nrama: In this book, you quickly develop a very realistic push and pull dynamic between the fractured family of samurai Oda and his daughter Ryoan and son Kaiman. What brought you to their characters and personalities?

Efal: Yes, this is the basic understanding I realized that even the adversary of one and one’s enemy is still a relationship, like any other. Both sides have their part and are mutually responsible for sustaining it. They share a bond, as unlikely as it may be, and have a say on the form in which it is perpetuated.

But to the point, before this story was about forgiveness, it was about hate, anger, gender, sexual confusion, growing up, loss, grievance, love, intimacy, loneliness, companionship, alienation, inspiration, art, life’s purpose. It was huge and messy and long and absolutely too vast to contain. It was the second of three chapters, each had about a dozen characters that were all speaking in turn in my head, leading three dozen lives spanning three generation across intertwining timelines and plot twists, which quite simply drove me mad. I was angry that I could not contain my mind, the narratives, and the process. Everything was moving all the time, and every change in the story or character would ripple backwards and forwards to create more changes. So I put the story away.

I began practicing and studying meditation, and three years later I was able to listen, non-judgmentally, to my mind again. It was a different landscape. Some voices were unrecognizable, some voices were more mature, and some were completely gone. Gemmei, then a lethargic mother, dead while living, was now deceased. The story shrunk and became workable.  I became more and more peaceful; the connection was immediate and obvious. No more “characters,” the voices were clearly of my own psyche, like disowned children that cry for attention. One was angry at life, another was disillusioned with love, one was craving for a parent’s acknowledgement, and the other wanted their parent dead. Listening, I learned to give space to each voice to express itself, and when possible, to let it converse with another, which became, in turn, into scenes, sequences, arcs. My job was to wait, listen, and record what I heard. Sometimes I will hear a voice, a line of dialog, but it was not yet clear whose character it is. Suddenly, without any deliberation, one will say a turning word to another, the two characters will make peace, my belly will explode with warmth, and tears will spill over my face. Never Forget is the collection of all of these moments of tender, overflowing heart.

While I can't avoid seeing the resemblance of the Ichikawa's family with my own, I did not intend to depict Oda as my widower father, myself or my sister as Kaimen or Ryoan. The story is not autobiographical, but at the same time is completely based on my inner landscape that was shaped by my past and present environment.

Nrama: When you were doing this book, which of the characters did you most empathize with – and why?

Efal: I would vacillate between all of them. Whenever a strong defiant, noble, free spirit rose within me, responding to world, seeking higher truths, wanting to change the world, my mind's voice would be Ryoan's. When I was hurt, meek, put down, it was Kaimen's. When I was angry for not being acknowledged, feeling victimized, wronged, blamed for no reason, Oda's rage would take over. There is a branch of psychology called narrative-therapy, and I wonder if, through these characters, this is what I performed on myself... The initial scripts had Ryoan being very submissive, and ended with her final domestication she herself feared. I definitely fell in love with Ryoan the moment she broke free from her tethers and became her feisty self, a transformation that I witnessed evolving through the different versions of the scripts but that never made it into the final book, where she is a hidden dragon from the moment go.

Nrama: The storytelling techniques used in this book seem very much of the manga path. I’ve read previous works of yours that weren’t – so why’d you go this route for the book?

Efal: The story rose very naturally. I didn't mean it to look or read in any specific style, and I am surprised many see it as manga. Never Forget does not feature many of the genre's characteristic such as elaborate page layouts, stylized faces. The points of contact with manga came with my reading of Goseki Kojima and Kazuo Koike's Lone Wolf & Cub and Samurai Executioner, and Koike and Ryuichi Ikegami's Crying Freeman that totally blew my 13-years-old mind away when I first read it in a hotel room in London. [laughs] It was an adult book and I couldn't order and ship it to Israel through Mile-High-Comics' catalog. Koike and Ikegami's silent storytelling touched my heart much more than the discursive comics of the west, with their emphasis on dialog and on-the-nose expositions. In Scott McCloud’s words, their usage of moment-to-moment and aspect-to-aspect panel transition resonated with the way my mind operates and expresses itself. Manga gives attention to moments, while western comics sometimes try to show a dozen things happening in the same panel. Composing Never Forget, I mostly followed my own rule of "One Action, One Panel." very much the same way I storyboarded the cartoons I worked on like Kappa Mikey, Three Delivery and Speed Racer at Animation Collective. These shows are all influenced by anime, and the drawing style seeped into Never Forget as well.

The choice of using zip-a-tone to give tones to the drawings came out of necessity of the process -- I was using Macromedia Flash, which does not output transparencies in print and I could not lay down a simple gray tone and show the line art below. So I created a fake vector zip-a-tone "patch" that I would cut and paste on the artwork. I experimented with many different styles and medium for the book, such as watercolors, traditional brush, pen and ink on paper, pencils, even oils. I had to settle on a method that would be immediate, quick and easy, flexible and allow reworking of the material. Most importantly, I wanted to maintain the ki, the energy of the spontaneous drawing, alive and powerful, to deliver the emotional and narrative impact. You can see many of these experiments on Activate’s “Making of NFNF”.

Nrama: Throughout the book you use an eight-panel 2x4 grid to tell the story, but I saw in some of your process sketches you experimented with a more American panel plan with different sizes. What led you to this?

Efal: I had to create a workflow that would accommodate the continual writing and editing process. The narrative and the pacing were the most important aspects of the craft and their priority trumped all others. As I was laying down the pages from the first script, things changed, scenes added, expended or removed, and I had to find a way to write down the story in an amendable and flexible form. When I started using Flash's timeline, I gained the freedom to work the narrative, as it required of me, moving the panels back and forth until the right rhythm and beat sounded from the images. It was a simple decision of compromising -- as an artist, I had to make a choice of limited my color palette, or not paint at all. Limits enhance creativity, and I had to find ways to elucidate time, movement, space and emotions with a fixed panel size. Growing up reading American comics, I was never sold on the more jazzed panel layouts, and felt distracted and pulled away from the narrative and its emotion. I was very impressed by David Lapham's Stray Bullets, that showed how powerful the grid could be. I noticed how drawn I was to pay deep attention to the content of the panel, and not glaze over it, hoping a text caption will give me the right context. I found myself completely lost in Lapham's pages, and completely immersed in the story and their characters. I wanted to achieve the same sense in Never Forget.

I have to mention, it is interesting that many people ask me about the different decisions I made regarding the story, the setting, the art and the execution. This book really happened on its own accord. As if there was this person who was whispering everything in my ear and I would be in charge of expressing it out in the world, with out interference. Afterwards, I may refer back to it and ask, “is this what you meant?” “Did I get you right?” If not, I’ll feel a discomfort in the body. But really, every time I, Rami, tried to make my own decision, to enforce a view or a line I felt was “important” to “get the point across” -- those felt inorganic and read awkward. When I took those out, a space was left and I felt that was much smarter, allowing me, and the readers, to fill in the blanks with our own interpretation and wisdom. It’s very empowering, and also released me of the burden of having to control the creative process.

Nrama: In the backmatter notation, you mention that this book was completed during 2 year residency at Fire Lotus Temple at NYC’s Zen Center. Can you tell us about that experience and how it affected this tale?

Efal: It was life changing, and the training there was crucial and fundamental to the completion of the book. Having a very structured schedule allowed me to focus completely on the composition of the book and explore what is this creative process that we, all artists and explorers, take part in. Where does creativity come from? Is it ours at all? Who wrote and drew this book?

The meditation practice exposed hindrances that were blocking the story and the characters. Responses of anxiety, joy, confusion, exuberance, anger and resistance to the changing and uncertain nature of the writing process exposed how I relate to the changing and uncertain nature of life – all of it. Buddhism is 2,500 years old tradition whose only concern is to explore the nature and the root of conflict and alleviate human suffering. The meditation and the teachings put me right in the midst of this exploration in my own life, body and mind. I have deep appreciation and gratitude to the teachers and staff at the temple, as well as the community of friends who gather and live there, they all have such a big part in the birth of this book and my heart goes out to each and every one there.

Nrama: Did serializing it online first help when it came time to publish this in print?

Efal: Immensely. Serializing on Act-I-Vate allowed others to see and comment on the story, and I could gauge how clear the storytelling is. The first act benefited much from this interaction. Further on, having the novel "out" on the web, allowed me to feel in my body how I was relating to it being public. Some scenes would read well to me on my computer, but once I posted it online I would feel within that it is not complete, missing the emotional cues I was shooting for, these things became very sharp and clear, and I would go back, amend them, and repost them. There was lots of that going on. Like stepping away from the canvas and looking at a painting from the other side of the room. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank everyone on Act-i-vate for their support. I am really grateful to be part of it and to have such talented and committed artists as friends.

Nrama: After finishing the story online, you decided to bring it to print – and self-published it through Lulu. Why’d you go that route?

Efal: As I was showing it around to publishers, and still do, the book was completed and there was no reason to wait. Print-on-demand made perfect sense: it is environmentally conscious, no stocks are kept anywhere means no wasted paper, and it gave me complete control over the production. Lulu's simple interface had me order the first proof copy in three hours of pre-prep and a week later I had my book in the mail. Lulu's production value has gone up and the books look great. They ship it everywhere and are easy to order from. They have strong sense of community and many writers contribute and share their experience on their message boards. It empowered me by not having to wait for anther publisher to let this flower bloom; I am the soil, the rain, the seed and the gardener. I just wanted to have the book available and let the bees, you and the readers, have it available anywhere, anytime.

Nrama: Now that this book is put to bed, what are you working on next?

Efal: For the next few months I’ll concentrate on giving Never Forget, Never Forgive the time it needs, promoting in conventions, reviews and competitions. I will also be leaving the Zen center and be just returning to a more conventional schedule and that will take me some time to adjust to and examine my next steps. In the meantime, I enjoy many portrait commissions and taking part in the Ink Well Foundation, a gathering of cartoonists, animators and illustrators in greater NY who regularly visit kids in hospitals and do art activities with them. The kids, their parents and the artists have so much fun and we completely transform the usual hospital room to a playground of creativity and imagination. This is all part of a larger on-going process of discernment of how do I want to combust my life, how do I relate to others and the environment, and what I‘d like to put forth into the world, this very moment.

Samurai Jewish infusion? What do you think?

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