Through Haruki Murakami novels and the music of Happy End and Haruomi Hosono, a young girl in Taiwan grows up and learns to move through life while learning about herself and deepening her relationships. The Song About Green, which ran in Monthly Comic Beam from May 2021 to April 2022, was the first serial manga work by Taiwanese manga artist/illustrator Gao Yan. It depicts the charm and potential of culture, the delicate sensitivity and subtleties of emotions of the protagonist Midori, and the state of urban life and youth culture in Taiwan with a refreshing brushstroke.
For the book release of The Song About Green – Gather the Wind this past May, Happy End member Takashi Matsumoto and Haruki Murakami wrote the blurbs for the first and second volumes, respectively. This collaboration demonstrates the power of culture that transcends time and borders.
What did Gao entrust to Midori, who is also her alter ego, and what did she try to depict through the character? How did this story come about, and how did it grow to be what it is now? Musician Haruomi Hosono plays an important role in Gao’s work. Yusuke Monma, author of the definitive biography of Hosono, Haruomi Hosono and Their Era (Bungeishunju, 2020), conducted a Zoom interview with Gao, who lives in Taiwan.
The Song About Green’s origin story: Encountering Haruomi Hosono’s music while in Shinjuku to purchase Happy End’s Kazemachi Roman
– The first thing I’d like to ask you is about the inspiration for this book. In the afterword, you wrote, “The birth of The Song About Green dates back to the summer of 2017.” How did the story come about that summer?
Gao: As mentioned in the afterword, I visited Japan for the first time in the summer of 2017, when I was twentyone. Japan was filled with things I couldn’t find in Taiwan, and I already had a fondness for Japanese culture because I grew up watching Japanese anime and reading manga.
The one thing I wanted to accomplish while in Tokyo was to buy Happy End’s album Kazemachi Roman. The rest of the story is as told in the manga. Coincidentally, Haruomi Hosono’s music was playing at the Shinjuku Disc Union I went to. Once I worked up the courage to ask a staff member what was playing, I found out it was“Koi Wa Momoiro” from Hosono House. That led me to purchase both Machikaze Roman and Hosono House. I later realized that Haruomi Hosono was a member of Happy End after looking at the lyric sheet.
It felt like I instantly fell in love with Mr. Hosono, and I did a lot of research on him once I got back to Taiwan. He was still making music at seventy, and was on tour in Japan to promote his new album. I wanted to go see him play, but I was a college student who had classes to attend and no money, so I decided against it. A mixture of that feeling of wanting to go but unable and Midori Kobayashi’s “strawberry shortcake theory” in Norwegian Wood is what led me to start writing a journal series titled “The Song About Green.”
Then one day, someone I had a crush on told me that Mr. Hosono was coming to Taiwan. I used that momentum to ask if he wanted to come with me. He agreed to go, and my “The Song About Green” journal series became something of a prophetic dream. I wanted to write a manga based on this strange experience, which is how this came about.
— So the story in the manga is basically the same as what you actually experienced?
Gao: Yes, although it’s a bit embarrassing (laughs). It’s basically 90% a personal essay.
Reasons behind feelings of nostalgia when listening to “Kaze Wo Atsumete.” Why music, movies, and literature are referenced in Gao’s work
— The song “Kaze Wo Atsumete ” from the album Kazemachi Roman plays a significant role in The Song About Green. Upon her initial listen, protagonist Midori wonders “why it feels so nostalgic, hearing the song for the first time.” Did you feel the same way when you first heard “Kaze Wo Atsumete”?
Gao: I first heard “Kaze Wo Atsumete” when I was in high school. The song was featured on Inio Asano’s A Girl by Seaside, a manga I was reading at the time, which then led me to look up the song on YouTube. But I wasn’t a music fanatic back then, and only casually listened to popular Taiwanese music. I was still young and didn’t understand Japanese that well, so to be honest, even though I thought it was a good song when I first heard it, I didn’t immediately obsess over it or do any deep research.
Just like Midori in the manga, I was unfulfilled with my high school environment, and had high hopes for a new life to begin in college. However, my expectations were completely different once I entered university. There were points when I couldn’t even draw the things I loved, just like Midori. I decided to challenge myself to do something new, because I knew I couldn’t keep going like that. I started focusing my unused energy on listening to Taiwanese indie bands. Just like Nanjun in the manga, I made friends with people around ten years older than me, and became interested in their favorite books and music, including Haruki Murakami’s novels.
The time I spent going to live shows, reading books, and taking film photos probably exceeded the time I spent at school. When I came across the song “Kaze Wo Atsumete” again, it sounded different than it did before. There was a new nostalgic feeling to the song, maybe because I was in a completely different state of mind than when I was in high school. It was strange to experience such a dramatic shift when listening to the same song. That experience led me to become interested in Happy End.
I’m part of a generation that was born in the digital age, so I have an admiration for the pre-Internet era, when people would go to record shops to choose their records. Back then, you couldn’t test out a record or look up reviews online. You had to rely on the cover art to choose records. I find that way of choosing very romantic. When I became interested in Happy End, I knew I wanted to buy the record that that song was on in Japan.
– Norwegian Wood was also an important influence on The Song About Green. Haruki Murakami’s novels often reference music and novels like you do in your manga.
Gao: Perhaps I was subconsciously influenced. I would often look up songs and authors and listen to the tunes I didn’t know that were referenced in Murakami’s novels. It’s nice to be able to encounter new works of art through another. I don’t do it on purpose, but I draw my favorite works in my manga, too. Some of my readers may encounter new works and worlds through that.
– In The Song About Green, there are many books and records on Midori’s bookshelf and in the room of Nanjun, who she falls in love with. Are those books and records that you personally like?
Gao: They are. But because it was a while ago that it was serialized in Monthly Comic Beam, I went back and read it again before making it into its own book. Upon reading it over, I thought Midori, who is a 19-year-old still in search of her goals in life, would like different books, so I secretly revised the titles of the books on her bookshelf (laughs).
Gao’s feelings towards Taiwanese culture and what she wants to express to Japanese readers
– That makes me want to compare the two (laughs). You also touch on Director Edward Yan’s Yin Yin (Japanese title Yanyan Natsu No Omoide) in your work. Japanese films have been heavily impacted by Taiwanese cinema, just as Hirokazu Kore-eda was influenced by Hsiao-hsien Hou. Many audiences like Taiwanese films, and I myself have long been a fan of directors such as Hsiao-hsien Hou, Edward Yang, Ming-liang Tsai, and Yu-hsun Chen.
Gao: Yu-shun Chen is fantastic! Actually, I gifted him a copy of The Song About Green.
– Is that so? In The Song About Green, you express your thoughts on Japanese culture. How do you feel about Taiwanese culture, on the other hand?
Gao: I’ve always thought of Taiwanese people as lacking self-confidence, even now. If someone tells them that they’re “very Taiwanese,” many people may interpret that negatively. Recently, due to the efforts of the government, more people have become interested in their surrounding environment, but many Taiwanese people still don’t think of their culture as a culture.
I fell in love with Japanese culture as a child, and grew up watching anime and reading manga in that environment. I think my whole generation in Taiwan had a similar experience. Since we didn’t consider our culture to be culture, we valued cultures that were imported, and absorbed that instead. Before we knew it, it became a part of our culture, and grew up alongside it.
On the other hand, and this may come across as condescending, as a foreigner who’s witnessed Japanese culture since a young age, I feel like many Japanese people don’t appreciate their own culture. It’s the exact opposite of Taiwanese people, who have tried so hard to search for outside cultures because of their lack of confidence in their own. What’s depicted in The Song About Green is a Taiwanese town, Taiwanese atmosphere, and a Taiwanese story. But the new world the protagonist in the story discovers is Japanese culture. I wanted Japanese people to understand how fascinating their culture is through this manga, and wanted to share with those Japanese people who had never left Japan that there’s an interesting world outside of Japan, too.
On the contrary, I wanted to tell Taiwanese people to be more confident, and that works by Taiwanese creators can be interesting, as well. With this in mind, I decided to first present this work in Japan and then again in Taiwan. Though the process may have been roundabout, I thought gaining recognition in a foreign country first would help with its acknowledgement in Taiwan.
– I see. When I read The Song About Green, I felt like I could actually hear the music and feel the breeze and sun on my skin. What aspects of your work do you think makes your readers feel those things?
Gao: The type of manga I seek to create is a sensitive and essay-like one. I want my readers to feel like they’re watching a movie while they read my work. My manga includes a lot of monologues and simple compositions, which may be different from the expressions of mainstream Japanese manga. I tried my best to figure out how to use my brush and paper to express sounds, wind, sweat, and complex emotions to my readers. I think I researched more films than manga while thinking about how to best express those thoughts through my drawings. I watched many movies and used the transitions between cuts in a movie as inspiration for my sketches.
The Song About Green’s journey from journal, ZINE, to long-form manga
– The Song About Green was originally a journal, then made into a 32-page ZINE, and was finally made into a long-form manga over 500-pages long. I’m sure you made various efforts to try and properly express what you wanted throughout that process.
Gao: I did. I already wanted to rewrite The Song About Green into a longer version when I initially presented it as a ZINE, because there were some parts I couldn’t express the way I wanted to due to my lack of ability at the time. As I mentioned earlier, I have a habit of keeping a journal, and The Song About Green was based on events I experienced between the ages of 19 and 23, inspired by my past diaries.
I had already decided on reconstructing the short story as a 500-page book in two volumes. That required a lot of creativity because I needed to include all the experiences I had between the ages of 19 to 23. The process was also quite painful because there were a lot of memories I never wanted to relive. I had to figure out how to convey the sensibility and memories of my youth through manga in a sophisticated, cinematic way.
– As far as expression goes, The Song About Green possesses its own unique rhythms and pauses. There’s a scene in the book where Nanjun shows Midori a post-rock album and explains the beauty of the pauses in the music. The lulls in The Song About Green have clearly been influenced by those in post-rock music.
Gao: This is the first time someone has described my manga as being like post-rock music. That
comparison makes me very happy. I often think of nature and the sounds that derive from it when I listen
to post-rock, like wind, rain, thunder… Similarly, rhythms and pauses are something that exist in nature.
I’m honored that you felt as though you were listening to post-rock while reading my manga.
– You mentioned that you had decided from the beginning that this would be a two-volume book. Does that have anything to do with Norwegian Wood?
Gao: Yes, the two-volume format is a tribute to Norwegian Wood (laughs). The reason why the first volume is pinkish and the second volume has a green-ish color is also because I wanted to pay homage to Norwegian Wood.
Inscribing important memories that would have eventually been forgotten
– Right, because Norwegian Wood is known for its first volume cover being red and its second volume cover being green. One line in the book that was particularly moving was when Nanjun says to Midori, “It’s not because of me/It’s because you were brave/You found them on your own and fell in love.” The Song About Green fully affirms the stance of loving something unconditionally and fearlessly. It also communicates how wonderful it is to love something. Perhaps that was one thing you particularly wanted to convey through your work.
Gao: That line actually has an interesting metaphor. For Midori, the figure of the man she accidentally witnesses on the beach – who we don’t know committed suicide or not – continues to haunt her to the point where writing becomes impossible. She regrets talking to him, imagining if things would’ve turned out differently if she hadn’t approached him.
But that’s not the only reason why she has trouble writing. She wanted to escape from herself, and from her surroundings. She thought her life would change once she was in college, only to find out nothing had changed even after moving to Taipei. In other words, the man on the beach had become a metaphor or an excuse to justify why she was doing poorly.
The only way to get out of her writer’s block slump was to face herself. Nanjun didn’t save her. Meeting him and falling in love with him made her come to terms with herself, which I think is a very pure and beautiful emotion. Just as Nanjun tells Midori that it’s “not because of me,” she is able to get out of her slump through finding songs like “Kaze Wo Atsumete” and through Mr. Hosono’s music. She becomes a stronger person by liking someone, which only happens because Midori herself was brave. Nanjun’s kind words personally resonate with me, also.
— Perhaps those were words you wanted to tell your 19 to 23-year-old self. It felt like you were affirming your past self through this work.
Gao: That’s true. Maybe they were words I needed to tell my old self.
– Finally, I’d like to ask about how The Song About Green is filled with a sense of anticipation of loss, amidst this sense of affirmation. How did this sense of loss emerge?
Gao: The Song About Green is a manga based on my own encounters and experiences, all of which may not have been remembered if I hadn’t recorded my thoughts in my journal. It’s strange how something so seemingly important when you’re young can gradually be forgotten about as time goes by. But forgetting is not always a negative thing. I believe it can also be a symbol of growth.
I wanted to express the important things you experience as a young person that are eventually forgotten about through The Song About Green. For example, the anxiety you feel riding an airplane to go abroad for the first time, reading your crush’s favorite book to feel closer to them, actively listening to music, among other things. I know the process of growing up is different for everyone, but I’m sure we all share the complex and very sensitive emotions during that time in life. If my readers can remember their experiences during their youth through reading this book, I’d be very happy and honored as an author.
Born in Taipei, Taiwan in 1996. After graduating from the National Taiwan University of Arts as a visual communication design major, Gao participated in a short-term study abroad program at the Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts as a painting major. Gao’s first manga series The Song About Green was published in Monthly Comic Beam (KADOKAWA) from June 2021 to May 2022, and was published as a book in May 2022 as The Song of Green – Gather the Wind (KADOKAWA). Other works include binding and illustrations for the Haruki Murakami novel Abandoning a Cat: Memories of my Father (Bungeishunju).
Photography Kazuo Yoshida
Edit Takahiro Fujikawa
Translation Mimiko Goldstein