Manga Mon Amour

  • Share
  • Read Later
Browse through any bookstore's graphic novel section and it will look like a tsunami has passed through, blasting the shelves with reams of indistinguishable Japanese manga. Like a red tide, most of it stinks. But some interesting manga flotsam has also washed ashore, strangely, by way of France, Spain and England. Since 2003 a Spanish publisher, Ponent Mon, in collaboration with a U.K. outfit named Fanfare, has published five books in the U.S. as part of a line they call nouvelle manga. They mean to start a new genre and the latest two, "Doing Time" by Kazuichi Hanawa and "The Walking Man," by Jiro Taniguchi, are two of the most peculiar comix of the year.

Nouvelle Manga has its champion in Frederic Boilet, a French artist living in Japan. Being French he naturally had to write a "Nouvelle Manga Manifesto." In it he explains how Japan came to see the French style of comix, called bandes dessinees or "clear line," as too graphically focused, while the French saw Japanese Manga as little more than near-endless volumes about robots and monsters. In spite of this disconnect, Boilet writes, both cultures share a mutual fascination with slice of life stories, as evidenced by the popularity of French cinema in Japan. (The name nouvelle manga deliberately echoes nouvelle vague, the French name for the New Wave cinema of the 1960s.) "Nouvelle manga" refers to any comic that taps into this mutual appreciation. To that end Fanfare/Ponent Mon's first book was Boilet's own "Yukiko's Spinach," an erotic amuse bouche done in a photo-realist style about the author's brief affair with a Japanese woman.

Fanfare/Ponent Mon's two latest releases are by Japanese artists, but couldn't be further from the kind of manga most people get exposed to. Jiro Taniguchi's "The Walking Man" ($17; 155 pages) perfectly embodies the precepts of nouvelle manga, taking the low-key activities of everyday life and depicting them in the highly detailed drawing style more commonly associated with European comix. Each of the book's 18 chapters depicts a nameless salaryman on a different stroll through the city and countryside. The first chapter sets the formula for ones following. The man pops out to take a break from moving into a new house. Amidst tableaus of sunning housecats, tall trees and fish swimming under bridges the man happens upon a bird watcher. They look at birds together. By the time the man returns home a dog has appeared from under the house. Rather than build drama from outsized events, Taniguchi instead dramatizes the small moments of our lives.

A man, a dog, a walk in Jiro Taniguchi's "The Walking Man"

So the chapters go, each walk in a different place, with emphasis placed on the weather, the changes of season, encounters with animals and brief, mostly silent exchanges with people. One sequence has the man engage in an unspoken race with a fellow perambulator; in another he climbs a small-scale Mt. Fuji replica. With few words spoken you must piece together the "story," such as it is, almost entirely from the visuals. In its emphasis on quiet, low-key activities and cutaways to environmental details, "The Walking Man" evokes the atmosphere of the films of Yasujiro Ozu ("Tokyo Story," "Early Spring," etc.) But the comparison goes no further than the work's mutual tone. Ozu's movies involve rich characters struggling with complex conflicts. Taniguchi's walking man stays a cipher, exhibiting only the barest hint of complexity. The pleasures of "The Walking Man" are principally in the form of Taniguchi's careful compositions, which acheive a contemplative beauty. Like a short walk of the mind, they refresh and provide exercise.

"Doing Time" ($20; 240 pages) by Kazuichi Hanawa, also focuses on environmental details, but inside instead of out. As Fanfare/Ponent Mon's most interesting nouvelle manga book, it stands out mostly through the originality of its subject: an autobiography of the author's three years spent in the Japanese prison system. A manga artist who ran afoul of Japan's strict gun laws, Hanawa began serving time in 1995. Far from being a self-righteous polemic about injustice or the cruelty of incarceration, "Doing Time" instead seems to delight in recounting the details of life behind bars.

Prisoner Hanawa must ask permision to pick up the eraser in "Doing Time"

The book opens with Hanawa in jail, awaiting transfer to the larger prison. There he ponders the mystery of the dust that accumulates overnight and imagines himself as a fat pig, penned up with nothing to do but eat. Once in prison, Hanawa shares a cell with four others and goes about the regimented routine of a factory prisoner who works on carving wooden tissue boxes. Recreated with a meticulousness rarely found in comix, the book includes floor plans, daily schedules and sartorial options. Food turns into a fascinating preoccupation throughout the book, with frequent asides on the exact menu of prison meals, as well as coveted snacks and sweets. Hanawa also introduces memorable characters, such as the Momma's boy, a neatnick who "holds the soap dish with his pinky extended." Hanawa recreates this alien world with laser-like detail, bringing us right into the very mindset of a prisoner. Astonishingly, he has done so completely from memory, having been prevented from drawing while in prison. Displaying the greatest artistic versatility of the nouvelle manga group, Hanawa moves from sharp realism to dramatic expressionism. In one sequence, Hanawa's face darkens with panic at the prospect of retrieving a dropped eraser. The end result is a fascinating anthropology of a culture that would seem foreign even to the Japanese.

It remains to be seen whether nouvelle manga will amount to a real movement. It would help if two or more masterworks appeared under such a label. Neither Jiro Taniguchi's "The Walking Man" nor Kazuichi Hanawa's "Doing Time" have quiet enough depth to justify calling them "masterworks." Even so, these Franco-Japanese creations are some of the most unusual, fascinating comix published this year.