Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Japan As Viewed by 17 Creators

by Jason Thompson, Jan 17th 2013

Episode CXXXV: Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators

I'd like to see more manga about travel. Since they can mix maps and text, illustrations and story, comics are a great medium to capture impressions of places; and since manga is known for its photorealistic backgrounds, you'd think it was a natural match. It's surprising, then, that travelogue comics are more of a Western thing: when I think of travel comics I think of people like Joe Sacco, Guy Delisle, Justin Hall (True Travel Tales), Ted Rall, Lucy Knisley and Craig Thompson (Carnet de Voyage). Maybe travel manga are just too small a niche to be translated, or maybe they're considered too hard to translate; perhaps the experience of seeing a foreign country through the eyes of a foreign tourist is one too many steps of foreign. Good travel comics give the reader a vicarious taste of exotic lands (and/or dangerous lands, if you're an artist like Sacco, Rall or Midori Takanashi, whose travelogue America nante dai Kirai! ("I Really Hate America!"), is a mostly negative portrayal of post-9/11 America as a country full of guns and Bin Laden urinal cakes). Ever since Japan opened up to foreigners in the 1800s, Westerners have been going there and writing about how cool and weird it was; recently, in comics alone, there's been Florent Chavouet's Tokyo on Foot, Aimee Major Steinberger's Japan Ai: A Tall Girl's Adventures in Japan, and the Japan segment of Ananth Panagariya & Yuko Ota's Johnny Wander.

What if there was a travel-manga exchange program, where Japanese mangaka write about the West and Western comic artists write about Japan? Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators is not this book, but it's something just as cool: a 256-page anthology of stories by 10 Western (specifically, French) and 7 Japanese creators. It was released in 2006 by Eurocomics/manga publisher Fanfare / Ponent Mon, the only publisher who could pull off something like this (they also published Korea as Viewed by 12 Creators).

The person who put all this together was Frederic Boilet, one of the few foreign comics artists to find success in Japan (where he spent the years 1996-2008). Boilet, as I mentioned in my column on Jiro Taniguchi, loves manga for its focus on everyday realism, and loves his native Eurocomics for their realistic, detailed art; of course he especially loves Taniguchi, who has both. With funding from the Japanese and French government, Boilet invited a team of French artists to go to Japan in late 2004, to make the "cultural exchange" project that would become Japan. Each artist writes about a different area, from Amakusa in the South (Kan Takahama's story) to Sapporo in the North (Étienne Davodeau's). The French are drawing a foreign nation, the Japanese are drawing home, all drawing different aspects of "Japan."

The first thing about this book is: the art is great. Francois Schuiten & Benoit Peeters, authors of the steampunk-ish "Cities of the Fantastic" series, draw future Osaka as a science fiction paradise. In their Osaka 2034, gardens, restaurants (with geisha) and golf courses hang suspended above the city, while in the garbage dumps below the towers, new breeds of insects evolve. Fabrice Neaud's "The City of Trees," while lacking giant bugs, has incredible detailed crosshatched art of the introspective tourist's journeys to lonely places, parks, temples and beaches. ("If the language barrier remains a serious obstacle, it's not too serious. I've always found it easier to speak with stones than with people.") Moyoco Anno's "The Song of the Crickets" is just 6 pages long, but each page is gorgeous, an elaborately detailed glimpse of Tokugawa Japan in the style of Sakuran. Taiyo Matsumoto's "Kankichi," another period story, is a fairytale about an artist who can bring his drawings to life, drawn almost in a children's book style.

The impressions of Japan tend towards magical realism and fantasy, especially in the Japanese artists' stories, for some reason. Only Jiro Taniguchi's "Summer Sky," a nostalgic look back at Taniguchi's hometown Tottori in 1953, is totally without magical elements. In Little Fish's wordless "The Sunflower," a man wakes up to find a sunflower growing from his navel. Daisuke Igarashi (Children of the Sea) draws a modern-day fairytale, while surrealist Kazuichi Hanawa draws a relatively realistic story about hiking on Mt. Maruyama; but like in all of Hanawa's work, the world seems slightly off, like the rows of Jizo statues beside the trail might move in the corner of your eye. Even Kan Takahama's "At the Seaside" has a slight supernatural element, but mostly, it's about the protagonist (the author?) visiting her childhood home, a remote seaside village on the West coast. "I didn't have any friends my age when I was little, so I used to come here of ten to look at the sea. I'd look at the continent, and very often dreamt that someday, someone would come from there…to ease my loneliness…" she tells her companion as they look out at the ocean. The first story in the book, it's a nice mix of the personal and the local, and a good foreshadowing of all the French artists about to make a beachhead onto the pages.

The French artists, on the other hand, write mostly about being tourists. Pointedly, Boilet picked artists based on his personal preference or their skill, not based on whether they liked Japan, so there's a certain amount of repetition in everyone's first impressions of the country. Not that these stories, too, aren't surreal and playful: David Prudhomme's "The Gateway" starts out as a dinner conversation between Western expats but then goes fairy-tale as their abandoned shoes (tourist tip #1: take off your shoes when you enter a Japanese home) wander off to go on an adventure. Nicolas de Crécy's "The New Gods," with its mind-blowing art, follows a commercial artist (the author?) and his manager as they go to Japan trying to come up with a Japanese-style mascot for the 2016 Olympic Games. As he wanders the street checking out vending machines and shops full of characters like Qoo and Anpanman, he has a religious experience, thinking of vending machines as temples and marketing characters as "gods" seeking worshippers ("Bottles, notebooks, bags, clothing, watches, etc. You have to be desired!"). The artist, too, draws himself as a character doodle in a world of realistic humans; it's basic masking at work, like how Joann Sfar draws himself as a alligator, or how French-Chinese-Cambodian artist Aurelia Aurita draws herself cartoonier than the Japanese women she meets in an onsen in Shikoku. Sfar's impressions of Japan are the funniest in the book ("I've got the impression that every time I ask a Japanese something, they become paralyzed with dread." "Yeah. They feel obligated to help, but it terrifies them. Besides, you probably ask them very complicated things, like directions." ) Etienne Davodeau's "Sapporo Fiction," one of the few European stories which is about a specific place more than about Japan in general, is about a visit to Showa-shinzan, a new volcano which appeared in northern Japan in 1944 and has already climbed over 1,000 feet; it's still growing.

Tourists, like everybody, have their biases; they all write about the food, about the hot springs, about Sanrio or Mr. Sparkle or some other cutesy pop culture thing, and they all check out the Japanese women. (Even Fabrice Neaud, who is gay: "This remains however a purely intellectual outlook, as I do find slipping into the role of a heterosexual male very tiresome.") There's a recurring theme of Westerners hitting on Japanese girls, mocked in Joann Sfar's story ("They land here and it's like the big adventure. They teach three French classes, screw a Japanese girl and think that they're Francois Truffaut!"). It's reversed in Emmanuel Gilbert's illustrated-prose story about a studio of Japanese artists, one of whom is a Francophile ("More obsessive too was his love of France, extending to anything that came from that country provided the fragrance of Frenchwomen was involved…").

Boilet himself, the mastermind of the book, also loves Asian women; all his comics/manga, from Yukiko's Spinach to Tokyo is my Garden to the untranslated Love Hotel, are about French guys who go to Japan and romance Asian girls. It's part self-aggrandizement and part self-parody, and since these were works made for the Japanese market, obviously it entertains Japanese people too: perhaps, since he knows people will just see him as some yellow-fever weeaboo no matter what he does, he embraces it, brother. Both of the female contributors to the book are artists in Boilet's personal circle; Kan Takahama writes about her first encounter with Boilet, "We talked a great deal, so much so that we missed the last subway of the night…We ended up, not in a 'love hotel' but at an all-night bar instead, where we were able to keep talking." Takahama ended up collaborating with Boilet on Mariko Parade, a joint graphic novel where they explore the "white guy x Asian girl" romance from both perspectives. Aurelia Aurita, for her part, actually dated Boilet and described their hawt sex life in her graphic novel series Fraise et Chocolat ("Strawberries and Chocolate"). Maybe this isn't relevant to their comics, maybe I'm just being nosy, but on the other hand, it's got to be an intentional visual callback that Aurita's story begins with the exact same image that Boilet's story ends with (a girl washing herself before she gets in the bath). Boilet's story "Love Alley" is just the kind of thing that Boilet does best, a little vignette of whimsical sweet talk between lovers, with lots of nudity. ("So me, when, when do you throw me out? On Wednesday, with the recyclables?" "It's not that simple! I couldn't throw you out all at once, I'd have to sort you first! Your drawers full of little panties, for example…that would be on Monday, with the flammables!") Boilet x Aurita share an autobiographical thread that ties together their tales, a secret narrative in an anthology that isn't really about story.

Come to think of it, maybe the reason there aren't more travelogue manga is that there aren't more autobiographical manga. The "ideal" travel narrative makes you feel like you're there yourself, but this doesn't leave much room for character or story; thus, travelogue comics risk turning into a tedious list of snapshots and factoids (I'm looking at you, Ekiben Hitoritabi). And in story manga, typically, locations are just photoshopped backgrounds; the more the main character (and the reader) is going around saying "Oooh, look at this interesting shrine on the side of the road", the less they're actually doing something. There's two obvious solutions: (1) Fabrice Neaud's approach, to approach it as a travelogue, with an offscreen or mostly offscreen narrator, so that the reader is completely sucked into their imaginary journey. (2) Aurelia Aurita's approach: to approach the whole thing as a diary, so that the reader accompanies you on your journey. Of course there's also (3), Taniguchi's, Boilet & Peeters' approach: to pay attention to story and character, but to craft stories around particular locations in such a way that they couldn't take place anywhere else. Isn't it more interesting reading about stories set in Tottori or  Urbicand or rather than Anytown, USA or Random Tokyo Screentone Background, Japan? For that reason I'm going to submit the proposal that one of the best travelogue manga of all time is JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, where detailed descriptions of Egypt, Italy and America are the setting for MAJOR SHONEN ASS-KICKING. No, I am not biased in the slightest.


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