My co-worker stops me at a meeting and asked about the picture on my phone cover.
“Is that from Les Mis?” she asks.
No one ever asks me about the picture on my phone cover. It’s faded, and because I am an American adult, hanging around with other American adults, most of the people around me don’t recognize the picture.
I smile at my co-worker. “No,” I say. “It’s from a cartoon.”
The picture on my phone cover is of Sasuke clinging to Itachi’s knees. It’s anachronistic: Sasuke is shown as his child-self, and Itachi is in his Akatsuki robes. I bought it because I thought it was sweet, and the style of the art reminded me of Bill Waters, the guy who does Calvin and Hobbes.
“Oh, sorry, I don’t have my glasses on,” says my co-worker. “I’m a big Les Mis fan. My cat’s name is Hugo.”
I don’t know my co-worker well, but I’m starting to love her. I have no idea, glasses or no, though, how on earth Sasuke and Itachi remind her of Les Mis. We talk for a while, about Victor Hugo, (not Naruto—because…American adults, that’s why) and later, I look up images of Les Miserables trying to see the imagistic intersection between Victor Hugo’s characters and Masashi Kishimoto’s. It doesn’t take me long (thanks, internet!) to see what she is seeing and I think I must have been the one without glasses for not recognizing it immediately.
Yep. My co-worker saw Sasuke and Itachi as Cosette and Jean Valjean. This tickles the shit out of me, for many reasons. I think, wow, there is no set of characters on this earth that could be less like each other: Sasuke and Itachi are a pair of tragic brothers pit against each other, and Jean Valjean is Cosette’s adoptive father who saved her from servitude and poverty. Super different relationships. Still…the more I think about it, the more I can see Hugo’s story in Kishimoto’s. Jean Valjean and Itachi are both treated as criminals, and their arcs are primarily about redemption. The form that Itachi’s redemption comes in is really his love for his brother, Sasuke. The form that Valjean’s redemption comes in is his love for Cosette. So the picture of the two embracing epitomizes an important moment of change for the characters in both pieces. I can dig it.
But what I like about this interaction is not something I learned about the similarities between these stories (there really is very little), but what I learned about images and obsession. My co-worker saw her obsession reflected in mine, through an image. And often, I feel, images (and poetry) are more universal than prose because they leave more room for interpretation, more room for people to bring their own preoccupations and interests and experiences to bear on the thing that they see. And oddly, because there is more room to bring yourself into the experience of an image, the image is more likely to connect two people who are preoccupied with different stuff. This is a good thing. Images create curiosity, and curiosity fosters connection.
I’m a writer, so when I think about communication, I think about words. Yet, cross an ocean, or a few hundred years, and words fail. Images, however, can retain their message longer and over a greater distance. They may be less precise, but precision can be overrated when it comes to connecting on a human level. And this is the level at which we need to connect, first, always. Everything else, intellectual or political or historical that comes up in discussion will contextualized in this knowledge. That is, I need to know the name of your cat. I need to know that you love Les Mis.