Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators

Edited by: Frédéric Boilet and Masanao Amano
U.S. publisher: Fanfare/Ponent Mon
ISBN: 9788496427167
Released: December 2005

Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators, a project coordinated by Frédéric Boilet and Masanao Amano, is a part of the Nouvelle Manga artistic movement, a collaboration between Franco-Belgium and Japanese comic creators. The volume was published in English by Fanfare/Ponent Mon in 2005. It was also released in five other language editions at that time: Japanese, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Italian. The collection brings together eight creators who were living in Japan (including Boilet) and nine French-speaking creators from outside of the country who were invited to visit Japan for two weeks as part of the project. I had previously read the volume but because Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators includes Moyoco Anno’s short manga “The Song of the Crickets,” I wanted to look at the collection again for the Moyoco Anno Manga Moveable Feast. I have an even greater appreciation for the anthology now that I recognize and am familiar with more of the contributors and their work than I did the first time reading it.

Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators begins with Kan Takahama’s beautifully illustrated, slightly nostalgic and melancholy story “At the Seaside” which takes place in Amakusa at the far western tip of Japan where she was born and raised. Each subsequent piece in the collection slowly works its way north and east across the country. The first contribution included by a French-speaking creator was “The Gateway” by David Prudhomme who visited Fukuoka. It, Aurélia Aurita’s delightful “Now I Can Die!,” and Fabrice Neaud’s “The City of Trees” read very much like travelogues and memoirs, although Prudhomme’s piece has a touch of the fantastic to it. Nicolas de Crécy’s “The New Gods” is also a travelogue of sorts but is told from the perspective of a work-in-progress searching for inspiration among Japan’s advertisements and mascots. In “Waterloo’s Tokyo,” Joann Sfar channels the thoughts and feelings his French friend living in Japan has for the city. “Osaka 2034” by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters and Emmanuel Guibert’s “Shin.Ichi” aren’t so much comics as they are illustrated narratives.

Interspersed between the contributions from French-speaking creators are the works created by comic artists living in Japan. Frédéric Boilet, active in both Japanese and European comics, serves as a sort of bridge between the two groups. His piece, “Love Alley,” features a discussion about trash and recycling collection in Japan which steadily becomes a much more personal conversation as the comic progresses. Both Jiro Taniguchi’s “Summer Sky” and little Fish’s “The Sunflower” are slice-of-life stories, although “The Sunflower” is more surreal and completely without words. Moyoco Anno’s period piece “The Song of the Crickets” is beautifully drawn and atmospheric. “Kankichi” by Taiyo Matsumoto, “The Festival of the Bell-Horses” by Daisuke Igarashi, and “In the Deep Forest” by Kazuichi Hanawa all have folkloric and religious influences and undertones. The collection concludes with Étienne Davodeau’s “Sapporo Fiction” which follows a Japanese gentleman and a Frenchman who become traveling companions by chance.

What I appreciate the most about Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators is the wide variety of artistic expression and styles of storytelling. There’s a wonderful mix of fiction and non-fiction, the fantastic and the mundane. The power of images and illustration is a common theme, as is the influence that each culture, French and Japanese, has had on the other. Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators is a very aptly named volume as the collection give the contributors a chance to explore the country in a way that they each choose. The comics are largely personal works, whether they focus on reality or fantasy, the past or the future. As with any anthology, some of the pieces are stronger than others, and some will appeal more than others due to personal preference, but overall Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators is a fascinating collection and an excellent project and collaboration.

The Summit of the Gods, Volume 1

Author: Baku Yumemakura
Illustrator: Jiro Taniguchi

U.S. publisher: Fanfare/Ponent Mon
ISBN: 9788496427877
Released: September 2009
Original release: 2000
Awards: Angoulême Prize, Japan Media Arts Award

The Summit of the Gods, Volume 1 is the first book in a five-volume manga series written by Baku Yumemakura and illustrated by Jiro Taniguchi. The series is based on Yumemakura’s award-winning novel The Summit of the Gods published in 1997. The manga adaptation of The Summit of the Gods is an award-winner in its own right, too. A nominee and finalist for numerous awards, The Summit of the Gods manga took home a Japan Media Arts Excellence Award in 2001 and an Angoulême Prize for Artwork in 2005. The Summit of the Gods, Volume 1 was first released in Japan in 2000. The English-language edition was published in 2009 Fanfare/Ponent Mon. The series has also been translated into French and German, among other languages. I first encountered Yumemakura and Taniguchi’s The Summit of the Gods during the Jiro Taniguchi Manga Moveable Feast. It easily became my favorite collaborative work by Taniguchi.

In 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed Mount Everest in an attempt to become the first men to stand on the mountain’s peak. The two men disappeared during the climb, never to return. Whether or not they reached the summit remains a mystery. Nearly seven decades later, Makoto Fukamachi, a Japanese photographer on another failed Everest expedition, discovers a camera in a shady back alley shop in Kathmandu matching the make and model of the one carried by Mallory on his final ascent. In his search for more information about the camera, Fukamachi encounters Jouji Habu, an aloof, legendary Japanese mountain climber who hasn’t been heard from in years. What started out as an interest in the camera evolves into an interest in Habu himself. Fukamachi feels compelled to learn all that he can about Habu, his reason for being in Nepal, and his connection to the camera. His search for answers leads him from Nepal back to Japan where he seeks out those who, for better or for worse, personally knew Habu.

The artwork in The Summit of the Gods is stunning, often bordering on photorealistic. I am not at all surprised that the series has won awards for Taniguchi’s art. Perhaps most striking is the depiction of the mountains themselves. Only small portions of them can ever be seen at any given time, but there is a sense that the mountains continue on far beyond the edges of the page. Taniguchi expertly captures the mountains’ massive presence in The Summit of the Gods. This is critical since they are such an important part of the story. The artwork’s realism also extends to the mountaineering gear and climbing equipment. Taniguchi pay s very close attention to accuracy and details. Every time the climbers attempt an ascent they are risking their lives. It’s difficult to forget this when Taniguchi shows that the only things keeping them “safe” are a rope and a handful of pitons. A single misstep or equipment failure could mean a climber’s death.

Much like Fukamachi, Habu absolutely fascinates me. He is by far the most developed character in The Summit of the Gods, Volume 1. This is understandable since he’s the subject of such an intense investigation. Habu is revealed to be an extremely passionate man and is frequently described as a climbing genius. It is that genius and seriousness that drives rifts between him and his fellow climbers. Socially, he is extremely brash and awkward. It is not until well into the first volume of The Summit of the Gods that a softer side of Habu is seen when Buntarou Kishi, a young climber who greatly admires Habu, is introduced. As unlikeable as Habu can be, I still find his story to be a compelling one. He keeps his distances and doesn’t express himself well, he’s blunt and insensitive, but he’s also honest and fervent. His characterization is exceptionally well done. I have now read The Summit of the Gods, Volume 1 several times and I still find it to be a tremendous and breathtaking work.

A Zoo in Winter

Creator: Jiro Taniguchi
U.S. publisher: Fanfare/Ponent Mon
ISBN: 9781908007049
Released: June 2011
Original release: 2008

A Zoo in Winter is the most recent work by Jiro Taniguchi to be published in English. Originally released in Japan in 2008, the English edition was published by Fanfare/Ponent Mon in 2011. Taniguchi, an accomplished artist who has been nominated for and has won a number of awards, has been on my radar for quite some time. While A Zoo in Winter is not the first manga by Taniguchi that I have read (that honor goes to his short story “Summer Sky,” collected in the anthology Japan: As Viewed by 17 Creators, also published by Fanfare/Ponent Mon), it was the first full-length work of his that I had the opportunity to read. Taniguchi and his work is the focus of March 2012’s Manga Moveable Feast. I chose to examine A Zoo in Winter more closely for several reason, but primarily because it is semi-autobiographical. Additionally, Taniguchi often collaborates with other creators, but he both authored and illustrated A Zoo in Winter. I also thought that as a single volume A Zoo in Winter would provide a good introduction to Taniguchi and his work.

Eighteen-year-old Mitsuo Hamaguchi began working at Watanabe Commercial, a cloth accessories wholesaler in Kyoto, with the hope of becoming a product designer. But because that work is now done outside of the company, he is never given the opportunity. Instead, he spends most of his free time drawing, frequently visiting the nearby zoo to practice his sketch work. After an unfortunate incident with the boss’s daughter, Hamaguchi finds that continuing to work at the firm would be uncomfortable at best. And so he visits a friend in Tokyo who happens to know Shiro Kondo, a successful mangaka who is looking for another assistant. Hamaguchi is quickly put to work and is soon swept into a new way of life with long, hard hours and perpetually looming deadlines. Under Kondo and the other assistants’ care and guidance, Hamaguchi’s skills continue to improve. Eventually he would like to strike out and create a manga of his very own, but he’s discovering it to be much more difficult than he imagined.

Although he is the main character, Hamaguchi is frequently overshadowed by the other, more vibrant people in his life. He tends to be quite and reserved, but this makes him charmingly awkward. He is easily embarrassed, deals with youthful jealousy and competitiveness, and regularly broods. Hamaguchi is still very much a teenager and still has room to grow and mature. One of the recurring themes in A Zoo in Winter is the need for a person to have drive in order to do well and that that drive may take on many different forms. For much of A Zoo in Winter Hamaguchi lacks that focus and intense desire. Although he is shown to be a hard worker and is devoted to what he is doing, it is not until he finds his source of inspiration that he finally comes alive and finds the joy in creation. Hamaguchi’s development as a person and as a character in A Zoo in Winter is convincing and is handled naturally.

A Zoo in Winter is a quiet story. Some people may even find it boring, but I think its realism is what makes it work so well. While there may not be thrilling action sequences there is still plenty of interpersonal drama as Hamaguchi finds his place in the world. His relationships with other people and his own self-discovery provide much of the driving force behind the story. Taniguchi’s artwork, particularly his backgrounds, is also realistic and detailed. His draftsmanship is really quite impressive. Reading A Zoo in Winter gives a genuine sense of stepping back into the Tokyo of the late 1960s. My only complaint about the English edition of A Zoo in Winter is with how it has been flipped. Some of the individual panels, instead of being mirrored like the rest, remain as they were originally drawn. This means that the flow of images and dialogue can occasionally be awkward or difficult to follow. But it’s fairly easy overlook this flaw because other than that, A Zoo in Winter is an excellent volume. It’s a wonderful tale of a mangaka’s early beginnings and personal growth.