“Hoshizora ni uta e ba” by Masai Akiyosha

A 1950s shojo manga I bought online from a Japanese auction site, a relic of the era of kashihon, inexpensive rental libraries through which many manga books were distributed in impoverished, post-war Japan..   “Hoshizora ni uta e ba (If You Sing to the Starry Sky”) by Masai Akiyosha. Here are select pages, and my  non-Japanese-reading commentary/ guesses at what’s going on.   First, the cover and page one of the story.

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The cover appears to be by a different artist than the interior.  Perhaps 勝山ひろし – KATSUYAMA Hiroshi?

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This is page 5, bit the first page after the title page. I love that even in the 1950s, even in an unpretentious kids’ manga, we start with this lovely “setting the scene” page (aspect to aspect in McCloud-ese), with the musical notes leading us into the start of the action on the next page (remember, read right-left):

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This is page 8.  More beautiful landscapes, as the story proper gets underway. I can only offer a guess as to what is going on, but I’ll try: on this page we meet the protagonist, a girl (whose name maybe a Japanese reader could figure out?), watching the sunset with her friend… They head home to (I am guessing her uncle). He has some news for her:

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Page 9. Our heroine has received a letter! I think the man giving it to her is her uncle… and I’m pretty sure it’s some news about her mother! (help me out, Japanese-reading friends). There’s clearly a big emotional reaction in panel 2, and some pensive-ness in panel 3. Then more of Akiyoshi’s beautiful landscape work, as the cock crows, the sun rises, and… (to be continued!) (I’m not going to post EVERY page…i’ll jump through the story via selected scenes, for those who are interested).

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Page 12: the next morning, Satsuki sets off by train, on the way to the city to see her sick mother. She meets a nice man on the train — doesn’t he look nice? I think there’s something important in Satsuki’s green suitcase ….

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Page 13. As the train rolls through the countryside, Satsuki returns to her seat: the Nice Man (henceforth referred to as the Bad Man) is gone! And her green suitcase is missing too!!

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As you remember, Satsuki is on her way to Tokyo to see her sick mother… when the “nice man” she meets on the train steals her very important Green Suitcase!! Here, on page 20, she confronts him in the station. She pleads, he snarls.. he raises his hand — to strike poor Satsuki? But then… his raised fist grabbed …. a hero! He looks like a detective maybe, from his hat…? To be continued.

As you can see, the story is now printed in a single color. Common practice in manga — in the 50s and maybe still?– to print the opening of a story in full color, but continue in monochrome (there are a few more full color pages later on though).

Also check out the little emotion graphics — the little anger blobs (?) surrounding Bad Man’s face in panel 2. The surprise-cloud surrounding him as his fist is grabbed… and the heavenly glow around the detective (if that’s what he is) in panel 7:

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Now here we are on page 21. As Satsuki explains something to the detective, the Bad Man gets away, slightly busting out of the panel border, even. They run after him. Some very exciting angles in those last three panels! Speed lines and blobby shadows. And panel 3 is interesting: that peculiar high angle, with the back of Satsuki’s head in the lower foreground, the detective’s feet in the upper background… with their word balloons in opposite corners, balancing the composition. Huh!

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Page 30.  Still missing her all-important-for-some-reason green suitcase, Satsuki finally reaches her sick mother. There is worry, but also happiness to be together. I have no idea what they are saying…

(Thanks to a helpful Tumblr friend:  “this page basically explaining the monetary situation of the family. She’s asking her mom if the gas stove is broken, and her mom explains they don’t have enough money to pay for the gas. Then she says she has been thinking about selling the house and renting a smaller one. She asks if that would be okay with Satsuki, and Satsuki responds she doesn’t care where she lives as long as it’s with mom.”)

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My abridged version continues, with page 31. Satsuki is clearly saddened by what her mom as told her about their financial worries…looking over the rooftops over the full moon as she contemplates (is she talking to her mom or to herself? I’m not sure). But she gets an idea? She turns to her mom and seems to be gesturing optimistically…
 
A pretty page, with all those stylized clouds, the near-wordless panel 3…. and I like the abstract background behind S’s wordless emotional expression in panel 2.
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Jumping ahead to pages 36 and 37.  The ink color has changed from purple to green… nice!  Leaving her mother’s house, worried, Satsuki walks through the rain, then gets an idea… I’m pretty sure she’s going to consult a distinguished doctor, arriving at his house in this nice page of 3-tier, full-width panels.  I really like space that this layout gives Akiyosha for background and architecture.  (NOTE: you can click this spread to see it a lot bigger):

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Page 41-40: Satsuki has the money that the nice detective gave to her (as she recalls in p40 panel 1). But the doctor says no! Why? I’m not sure… not enough money, perhaps? Satsuki leaves, downhearted.
 
The doctor is drawn in a sympathetic way (despite an oddly shaped cranium), but I guess he’s not kind enough to reduce his fee for Satsuki (any Japanese readers who want to help clarify — appreciated as always)! My favorite panel on p 40  is #3, where the doc’s hand, in extreme foreground, delivers/embodies the “no.”
On the next page (with the ink color reverting to purple again), the doctor and the nurse discuss… something.  Again, the doc seems concerned, even optimistic in the last panel.  I wish I knew what he was saying!!
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Pages 43-42, a full-color double-page spread! Satsuki, having left the doctor’s, ponders her situation (any kanji readers who can tell us what she’s actually thinking/saying to herself, most appreciated).
 
A sweet, if not spectacular spread. I find the architectural background kind of interesting: that light-blue, wedge-shaped housing development on the left, with more traditional-looking roofs on the right; telephone poles against the evening sky (though Akiyosha has chosen not to draw the wires): and a lone TV aerial on the right. As I understand it, TV was just becoming widespread in Japan as the economy improved in the late ’50s/early ’60s, so that’s a nice period detail. And of course, those cute little stars!
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Page 48: Satsuki struggles with a moral dilemma, tempted by what seems to be the “devil” of her conscience. What is it he wants her to do? Something involving paper fluttering about. Satsuki then acts as her own “angel” in the final panel… looks like “angel” is going to win? Anyone who can read Japanese and tell us what is going on here? I like the little anger-puffs Sastuki/conscience is giving off in the last panel, and that nice abstract emotion-shape framing real Satsuki  — Akiyosha has used that before (see page 31). How would you describe that shape, and its effect?
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Following page 48, which took place in the subjective realm of Satsuki’s conscience, Akiyoshi returns to reality and really goes to town with the backgrounds.  Having successfully wrestled with her demons, she plots the next steps in her mission to save her mother.  In panel one, Satsuki is the only animate being in view, against a drab and unpromising backdrop of walls and fences. She looks serious, but determined, coming off her victorious struggle with temptation.  Nice details: the wood pattern of the wall behind her is broken up with what appear to some corners of torn-down posters. What is that object in the lower right, under the awning, that resembles a giant tea-pot?  Also, the judicious use of white in a mostly screened-over panel: the white of the house on the far left balancing the white of Satsuki and the word balloon.  
Panel 2 has a lot going on: again, Satsuki framed in the center (though closer in this time).  She looks more optimistic and has entered a more lively part of town, passing a movie theater (playing “Hot Guns!”), and there is another pedestrian in the background as well. This panel visually sums up Satsuki’s journey and challenges: “behind” her to the right (keeping with the R-L manga direction), all is tranquil, domestic: trees, a home, the bright moon starry sky; ahead of her, the excitement and danger of the cinema, complete with the villain on the poster aiming his gun at her!  
Panel 3 is reassuring: the moon, a mute witness in the previous panel, now expresses a cheery outlook. Satsuki appears to have paused, and gazes upward, looking entirely hopeful.  In panel 4, she marches forward, positioned on the right side of the frame, with the future ahead.  The regularity of the architecture, foreground and back, adds to the impression of a confident cadence to her stride; the encouraging moon, however, has been replaced by the characterless round object (sign? mirror) on the pole, which leans in slightly left-to-right, offering some foreshadowing resistance to Satsuki’s progress. 
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Pages 55-54: another full color 2-page spread!!  A few pages later, having returned home for a brief conversation with mom, Satsuki sets out on her own again, and who should she run into… but the Bad Man who stole her suitcase at the train station!  He’s looking as menacing as ever, too, and Satsuki is taken aback.  The composition mirrors the last 2-page spread (p. 43-42).  A lot of wood in this image… again with the torn-off flyer detail… and I see that what I took for an awning in the last page (lowe right corner, here) appears instead to be some sort of bin, for trash, ashes, firewood?
 
But for me, this page is all about patterns — the wood-grain, the checker patterns of his jacket and her skirt (and bow). Against all those fine lines, the big shapes of the two character’s black hair and faces really “pop.”  Each character has their emotive “emanation” as well: for Satsuki, the classic upset-sweat-drops; for Bad Man, the slinky cigarette smoke puffs in front of his face that accentuate his shadiness.
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Page 56.  I’m amused by the way Akiyosha draws the Bad Man from head-on in the first panel: that long, hipster hair? But I like that almost floral “explosion” shape he draws around the figure.  The dynamic between Satsuki and the Bad Man is definitely changing here: she’s trembling in panel 2, but he surprises her with his remarks in panel 3, and by the last panel she’s striding off with a smile on her face.  What are they saying??  Anyone??  As usual, Akiyosha keeps the dialogue scenes lively with strong diagonals, expressive faces and gestures.  Interestingly, Satsuki’s decisive exit in the last panel goes against the right-left reading flow (this is the right-hand, “recto” page of the spread).  This perhaps makes sense when we realize that her reunion with the Bad Man is, in fact, a major turning point in the story… so she is running “away” from where the narrative is going to take her.  masai-akiyoshi-hoshizora-ni-uta-e-ba-57
 Page 57: The Bad Man (I wonder if I’ll have to change his designation soon?) pursues Satsuki back and forth across the top two tiers, losing her in the bottom panel. I really don’t know what has transpired between them, but the relationship has definitely changed.  Bad Man seems anxious, and doesn’t appear to have malicious intent.  Satsuki seems unconcerned by it all — she is either ignoring him or isn’t aware of his pursuit, though he’s clearly calling out to her (calling what, though?  Translations welcome!)  I see that Akiyosha has trouble drawing the proper angle of Satsuki’s forward foot in panel two: I have that same problem.  A fun, zig-zaggy page, with lots of background detail as they proceed from the residential neighborhood through a more industrial-looking setting, ending up at the docks (thanks for the English-language “boat” sign in panel 3 — I wonder if such signs were often in English during the 50s, soon after the end of the U.S. occupation?).  I especially like that weird, sorta art-deco-building on the right in panel 3.  Also, notice that the ink color has changed again, from purple to blue. 
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Page 60.  Intriguing new elements are introduced: Morally-Ambiguous Man has now pursued Satsuki into a carnival, but she has lost him in the crowd. Another “explosion-reaction,” as he sees…. a poster of a wrestling attraction. The Man stands in a crowd of other men (check out the clashing fabric patterns!), considering the poster’s contents.  From another angle, Satsuki spots the Man. She rushes into the tent, past the surprised ticket-taker.  The vertical diagonals of the poster and tent-lines create a downward-outward sweeping triangle, emphasizing Satsuki’s reaction/action in the bottom two panels. 
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Page 61, and now we’re in the wrestling tent.  Satsuki watches from an excellent seat.  By my count, there are 18 spectators whose genders are identifiable, three are female, which leads me to conclude that the audience for wrestling in 1950s Japan was 16 2/3% women (or girls).  But I digress.  The Wrestler has weird hair and a very tough expression on his face.  My favorite panel is panel 2, with all that cross-hatching, though panel 5, with the hands/backs of heads in the foreground and wrestler glowering in the background, is also kind of cool.  But where is this thing headed?  I’m pretty sure the announcer is calling for volunteers to take on the Wrestler… is Satsuki about to jump into the ring??!
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Page 62.  OMG, the Bad Man is volunteering to get in the ring with the wrestler!! I am beginning to think that he is doing this to win the prize money to help Satsuki.  For now, I propose we change his name to the Morally Ambiguous Man.  I’m a little confused what’s going on with Satsuki at the bottom of the page: she’s clearly in the crowd watching the Morally Ambiguous Man volunteer (I like the way Akiyosha uses the half-tones to highlight her in panel 5), but then she leaves, but then she is approaching another tent with a big crowd in front of it? Anyway, this is getting pretty interesting!Masai Akiyoshi - Hoshizora ni uta e ba - 62
Page 68… Yes, it’s true!  The Morally Ambiguous man is in the ring with the wrestler!  I am pretty sure he’s doing this to win the prize money to give to Satsuki — for her mother’s operation?  If we can confirm this, he will go back to being the Nice Man!  I like how this book defies the stereotype of 50s shoujo… now it’s a wrestling comic!  The wrestler’s steely gaze in panel 1… M.A. Man does not look confiden, perhaps, in the next panel?  One thing to grap suitcases from little girls at the train station, quite another to grapple with this dude!  Nice sequence in panel 4-5, with the lift, and slam to the canvas (M.A. Man’s feet breaking the panel borders at the top of panel 4 to fit the whole figure in).  Also great hair in this wrestling match.  Also back to purple ink.  But it doesn’t look like Morally Ambiguous Man is off to a good start. Maybe he’ll turn it around in the next page?  Stay tuned!Masai Akiyoshi - Hoshizora ni uta e ba - 68

From page 68’s description: “Maybe [Morally Ambiguous Man] will] turn it around in the next page?”

Page 69: Nope.

The two men threaten to bulge off this beefcake-laden page, culminating in the hilarious (even though we’re probably rooting for M.A. Man) panel 5.   Wherever this story is headed, it doesn’t look like things will be resolved by M.A. Man winning the wrestling purse for Satsuki, but the action-packed interlude has been enjoyable.

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PAGE 76: The Not-so-Bad Man’s Dark Night of the Soul.

From rollicking action to moody introspection: recovering from his wrestling injuries, he lies in his hospital bed, overcome with remorse over how he’s treated Satsumi, remembering how he stole her suitcase (& the money she needed for her sick mother).  And yet, she forgave him.  A tear rolls down his cheek.  

An atmospheric page, emotional page.  I especially like the view in through the window in panel 4, seeing the Not-so-Bad Man from outside,  as though we were his conscience, realizing how he looks to the decent folk of the world… the bars of the window mirroring the 6-panel grid of the page, with the man’s head isolated in one of the squares, as he ponders his evil ways, trapped inside his own head. 
The Not-so-Bad Man’s sunglasses (he even wears them his bed) are like a mask, their blackness indicates the inky darkness of his soul. In the final panel, his perpetual sneer is directed at himself at last, betrayed by the tear rolling down his cheek. 
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Page 77.  Who are these guys lurking in wait for Satsumi?  Now these are some really Bad Men!  What do they want from her? Don’t let anyone tell you 50s shojo manga was all sweetness and light: the guy with the bandanna actually punches Satsuki in the face in the last panel!  That said,  that alphabet shirt is pretty cool, and Akiyosha comes up with another great, wild hairdo for that character as well (plus a spotty noise).  Outside of the nice setting for the first panel, all the backgrounds on this page are abstract, with heavy usage of the “explosion” effect for emotional emphasis in panels 3, 4 and 7, textured patterning in panels 5&6.  But, we’ve got to be worried for Satsumi!
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Page 78-79, another 2-page color spread blow-out!  The new Bad Men confronting Satsuki across the fold. The pavement squares’ forced perspective add to the vertiginous menace of the scene, while the mute, identical houses and chimneys in the background offer no hope of rescue.   The cute animal of some kind (dog? fox? — it appears to have been interrupted while pooping)  looking on in alarm that duplicates and magnifies Satsuki’s helpless fear.
All of which begs the question: what is going on here?  What are these Bad Men after?  Will Google Translate provide the answer?  Let’s see… it tells me that the bad guy in the pink stripes is saying: ” “3/6/201 Sotsu…. Even if it is not a department, even if you do not have 1111 copies, you only need to have 1 1111, so please come quickly…”  To which Satsuki replies:  “?’4 I do not really have it —“.  Well that’s not much help, but common sense would make us assume that they want something from Satsuki and it’s probably money.  If you can read Japanese, let me know!!
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Page 82.   Another color switch, to pink.  Satsuki flees from the two Bad Men, but it isn’t force that keeps her from getting away, it’s whatever the bandana guy shouts in panel 3.  This is probably the boldest and most playful panel of the whole book…  the foreshortening as Bandanna man reaches for her as Akiyosha transforms his panel into a “Cinerama” screen, created by the curving letterbox-like black areas above and below.  The character seems to be reaching out of the screen, his hand breaking the panel border.  I am not quite sure of the exact meaning of the empty word-balloon-like shapes puffing out of Bandanna Man’s head … a manga convention indicating some sort of strong emotion (repeated in the next panel as well) and apparently distinct from the “sweat drops” that are common to Western comics as well (since they are used for alphabet-shirt man in that panel, as well as Satsuki in the next..  (Speaking of manga “emanata,” note the speed lines/puffs as Satsuki runs in panel 2).  The two men seem both desperate and menacing, but instead of running away, Satsuki seems to be pulled up short by whatever they’re saying….
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Page 83, another excellent page as the story and action really heat up.  The Nice (really he is, now) Man, obviously hears he commotion from down below (or does he have a psychic sense for Satsuki’s distress, as indicated by the light-burst effect around his head?). A lot of good dynamic composing, especially in the lower two tiers of the page: the Bad Men pursue Satsuki in a single-file. northeast-to-southwest procession in panel 3, with a poly-rhythmic visual relation to the roofs, foliage and utility poles in the background.  Panel 4 features complementary diagonals to the previous panel (I like this high angle view of Nice Man through the window, showing the surrounding buildings in the background).  Then, the Nice Man jumps out of the hospital window (!!) (despite his injuries and the fact that it appears to be at least 6 stories up in the previous panel), more or less straight toward the picture plane.  Finally, the Bad Men catch Satsuki in panel 6, pictured from a slight low angle, creating an interesting receding diagonal with the three figures:
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Page 91-90: The Nice Man survives his leap from the hospital window, and comes to Satsuki’s aid; there follow about 7 pages of fighting, the Nice Man vs. the Bad Men.  He puts up a good fight, but this is how it ends:
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Page 92.  As the Nice Man is about to beaten with a club, Satsuki comes up with a diversion.  The top tier’s three panels use graphic elements as well as facial expression (and text, which I can’t read, so never mind about that), to indicate Satsuki’s emotions/thoughts: the alarm explosion around her in panel 1… the dense cross-hatching indicating deep (if hurried) thought, and then the universal symbol for an idea in panel 3, the lightbulb (interestingly, the lightbulb is on its horizontal, not vertical, is this a difference between manga and western comics?)
The lower two tiers comprise a rhythmic back and forth between two similiar (though not identical) compositions: the bad guys prepare to beat the Nice Man; Satsuki calls something out; alarmed, they stop before bringing the club down; Satsuki points something out in the sky (or high on the building), which causes Alphabet-Shirt-Guy even more alarm.  Sweat drops are used rather promiscuously in these panels: when Satsuki cries out they indicate excitement, and in the Bad Guys’ panels they’re used for alarm or fear.
Whatever Satsuki’s ploy is, it must be quite clever.  Does it have anything to do with the torn leaflet corners that are so prominent in the wall in front of her??
After the full color spread on the previous pages, the monochrome ink has changed to purple again: 
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Page 93.  Whatever Satsuki said to the Bad Men, it worked, as they flee the scene, and the Nice Man’s hide is spared.  What are Satsuki and the Nice Man talking about in the aftermath? Picking through the gobbledy-gook that Google Translate provides, I glean that the Nice Man is contrite and apologetic and perhaps asking Satsuki to turn him over to the cops.
Whatever the text may contain, Akiyosha composes the page in an overall “pyramid” with a full-width tier on the top, two panels in the middle tier and three on bottom. Dynamism is created by juxtaposing and balancing moderate diagonals (the receding line of the wall in panels 1, 2, 6, the eye-line angle between Satsuki and Nice Man in panel 3, and the pavement tiles seen from above in panel 5. 
Also, we’d changed ink colors again to red/pink, presumably a random choice, but who knows?
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Page 94. This page seems to be portraying the climax of Nice Man’s moral crisis. Though it seems he’s already turned the corner, he is still struggling with what sort of person he should be, confronted with Satsuki’s unexingtuishable Goodness. In the last two panels he thanks Satsuki and promises her that he will be come a good man (if I’m interpreting the fragments of meaning in Google Translate correctly). 
Akiyoshi uses abstract background patterning to underscore Nice Man’s inner process: the crosshatching in panel 2, the squiggle pattern in panel 3, and the resolving burst around the characters in panel 5, as Nice Man thanks Satsuki.  I also like the way Nice Man musses up his hair in anguish in panel 3. 
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Page 95.  Too weak to walk on his own, the Nice Man lets Satsuki help him back into the hospital, where a nurse lends support as well. The Nice Man has completed the character arc from selfish scoundrel, to vulnerable friend.  I note a minor detail: the treatment of foliage in panel 3, perhaps ivy growing along the wall, which I don’t think I’ve seen before in this book (and reminiscent of the abstract background in panel 3 of the previous page).
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 Page 100.  Satsuki goes looking for the doctor, she has money to pay him to help her sick mother now.  The doctor is encouraging, and says the mother will recover on her own, and he doesn’t need to be paid.  
This page is mostly notable for prefiguring The Exorcist, with Satsuki’s 180 degree head turn in panel one (which distracts from a nicely-composed panel: Satsuki’s face framed between the diagonally-receding gate posts, her surprise drops-burst seconded (and thirded) by the foliage and clouds above them).  Also the elegant geometric background provided by the stone wall in panels one, six and seven.  Masai Akiyoshi - Hoshizora ni uta e ba - 100
Page 101.  Another ink-color change.  I like the chapter-heading, lettered against a “starry sky,”  (don’t forget the title of this book!), and the scroll-like text box in panel 2, announcing (I think) a passage of time. The Nice Man has another moment of dramatic internal monologue.  I think he’s still figuring out how to be a good person and help Satsuki.  He makes a decision in panel 4, and reverses direction, striding off with purpose in the final panel.  I don’t know what that is he has in his hand in panel 4, it looks like a rock.  A wallet?  The case for his ever-present shades?
A nice page, with a lot of different background details and textures and diverging diagonals giving the composition a lot of energy. In the last panel, the rising and falling of the cloud-line slyly echoes the shapes of the figures and objects below (like the foliage and clouds reinforced Satsuki’s drop-burst in the previous page). Masai Akiyoshi - Hoshizora ni uta e ba - 101
Dan
Lives in: Cambridge, Mass. Does: comics. Used to live in: Topanga Canyon, California But grew up in: Cambridge, mostly Used to do (maybe still?): Screenwriter, journalist, teaches some too