I wrote a review of Master Keaton for the AV Club which was published today; you can read it here. That might be helpful in providing some context and a general overview for what follows in this brief essay; I'm still getting used to the 500 word limit for reviews that they enforce (it's challenging in a good way, cutting to the quick of what you really want to say, and consider of significance), and I'm not sure how that reads. It largely focuses on Urasawa's characterisation of Keaton; there were a lot of things I wanted to discuss that fell to the wayside. One of those interesting facets, and the subject if this piece, is the portrayal of Keaton's mother, and his wife.
Neither woman makes an actual, physical appearance in the whole book; they are discussed by other characters, and shown fleetingly via a couple of flashback scenes. In the final third of the book a flashback shows Patricia, Keaton's mother, a total of 3 time: 2 close-ups of her face, and one scene in which he remembers/imagines her standing in her garden, her back to the reader. That final image mirrors the only time we're shown Keaton's wife -whose name is never given- from early in the story when Keaton reminisces about the first time he saw his wife -also from behind. Despite the presence of both women is keenly felt throughout the book. Here's what can be gleaned on each:
- Patricia Keaton, a 'woman who could do anything well,' left her husband to return to her homeland of England, taking her 5-year old son with her to raise alone and has never been back. She has since gone on to run a big and very successful business in England. Keaton's father is a serial philanderer, who, 30 years on, believes his wife still loves him (he still loves her), despite his constant cheating (there is a later inference that she may not have minded his straying so much -although that may have changed- and her reasons for leaving may be different as to supposed).
- Keaton's wife is a mathematician and professor at the top of her profession (he's a lower level professor, she works at the one of the most prestigious universities in Japan, and is on her way to making full professor, which I assume is akin to tenure?). They met and married while studying at Oxford and had their daughter Yuriko when they were 20. The reasons for her leaving Keaton are unclear, but he still loves her, and both reside in Japan and share custody of Yuriko,
It's difficult to know the women, but its interesting in examining the choice to include them in such a manner- that they are so strongly present, and part of the story without being physically there, particularly as Master Keaton could so easily be a male dominant narrative- adventure/action hero ahoy. Their inclusion attests to their importance in Keaton's life -ultimately, they are presented through his eyes- and to the narrative, but agency is key to their presentation. As fulfilling and rich as the roles of mother and wife are, both women are more: successful not merely by conventional standards: job, status, money- but as smart, independent, and compassionate women who made difficult decisions that would best allow them to lead the lives they wanted.
By comparison, Keaton and his father come off looking rather sad and sub-par; unchanged from when their wives left them: the latter still chasing after women and living in an apartment by himself, while the former hides behind a misplaced concept of chivalrous autonomy on behalf of his wife (which reads more like stubborness and pride), lacking the courage to tell her he loves her and wants her to stay, to work on the marriage, to be together. Yuriko mentions her mother had once said if Keaton had tried to stop her, or asked her to stay just once, she would have, but the parallels between him and his father are undeniable. Both appear unfulfilled, his father perhaps more resigned to his fate. At the beginning of the book, Yuriko informs her father of her mother's intention to re-marry, and he attempts to pump her for more information about her mother's boyfriend to no avail. This continues throughout; whenever Keaton and Yuriko meet, he asks after her mother's boyfriend and she ignores him. It's played to comedic effect, but he obviously cares as well, although not enough to get in touch with his ex-wife himself, By the end of the book, Yuriko informs him the engagement/relationship is off. The women have grown, become more, and moved on- and the men remain the same -superficially at least- afraid to change, to take chances.
There's a definite reading of Keaton and his father as unanchored, of missing something, and something missing- and that seems to be the women they married.
Urasawa devotes considerable time to building up and fleshing out these women, and showing us their impact on the characters: on softly-spoken but steely Keaton who was raised by his mother, and on the passionate and idealistic Yuriko. The constant [presence and influence of a person in your life can change and define you, but their absence, too, can have a similar effect. On a regular retreat to Keaton's childhood house in the Japanese countryside, he is eager to re-create a summer pudding his mother used to make for him, discovering the secret ingredient to her recipe in a notebook: pennyroyal, 'I planted penny royal, which I brought with me from Cornwall. This is my secret homeland.' On finding the bed of penny royal withered and close to dying (and with no chance of rain all summer) Keaton and his father previously laconic and ambivalent to Yuriko's adamancy that they take action to win back their wives, jump into action, working tirelessly through the night to build and install a water pump/mill which will ensure the penny royal's survival.
Much of this is somewhat inferred, gap-filling for what is presented on the page (it's difficult to discern who's done/decided what exactly), and it should be pointed out Master Keaton is not short of actual complex female characters: Yuriko, Sophia, Kayoko, Claire, and more, but it's intriguing to see absent characters presented in such a sparse but significant manner, and to wonder further as to who they are.