When it comes to translated Japanese reading fare, I am especially wary of two categories: compilations and “alternative manga.” Too many of the former are downright shams, with a pretty cover and a couple selected works expected to buoy a preponderance of poor-to-mediocre works by members of the headlining’s author’s creative circlejerk. My disdain for the latter stems from a preference for works that are pleasing and competent from the standpoint of classical aesthetics over ones that eschew these standards in favor of social context and subculture in-jokes. Yet, even though Japan, As Viewed By 17 Creators is a poster boy for both types of media, its premise of ten French and seven Japanese cartoonists writing about their experiences in Japan was strong enough to overcome these prejudices — and its execution compelling enough to recommend here.
An established art and animation powerhouse, France is well-known for not only for a vigorous indigenous comics scene, but also a robust appetite for licensing foreign works. Japanese titles are particularly popular, as many envious Stateside manga fans can vouch; what few of them know, however, is that an entire artistic movement has arisen from a cross-pollination of manga and French comics. Known as Manga Nouvelle, an association of Japanese and French authors has emerged from mutual interest in creating and translating works aligned with Japan’s seinen/josei aesthetic. Serving as the introduction to this book is the letter in which the group’s founder, Tokyo-based expat Frédéric Boilet, invites his friend Étienne Davodeau to participate in an effort where French writers would travel to Japan and write about the place where they were invited, and native writers would write about their hometown and neighborhoods. A helpful map of Japan precedes each story, with a marker indicating where it takes place — I have merged them into a single composite, which you can see in the figure below.
The stories in Japan are arranged by ascending longitude of the corresponding city, beginning on an island in the Amakusa chain with Kan Takahama’s tale about the town where she grew up. A stylish (and ostensibly autobiographical) tale of a European journalist interviewing a girl about her youth in a tiny fishing village presents a perfect start to the voyage across Japan. The next entry, despite a humorous premise (a Frenchman’s shoes escape their owner to wander around Fukuoka), is a drab jumble of scenes and pictures that might have worked in the hands of a competent artist, but is reduced by David Prudhomme’s wriggly, dilapidated style to resembling a mentally challenged first-grader’s report of a trip to the beach. Afterward, Jiro Taniguchi offers his own story of a fishing-village childhood. With the setup all but tailor-made to his specialty of following the mundane activities of a contemplative traveler, he is totally in his element.
The slew of French pieces that follows runs a complete gamut in terms of visual competency and thematic conformance. Clocking in at an absolute zero with respect to both is Aurelia Aurita’s noxiously self-indulgent “Now I Can Die!” The goofy intro page blurb informing us that she is working on an “autobiographical comic book, which, it is whispered, is highly erotic” offers fair warning, and no one can be surprised when the author inverts the compilation’s theme to tell an exhibitionist story about herself that merely happens to take place in Japan. The narrative is sex- and anatomy-obsessed at a highly juvenile level somewhere between a dog discovering its balls and a kindergarten game of Doctor.
Another lackluster piece rife with “adult situations” comes from Emmanuel Guibert, a gifted and versatile artist — but you wouldn’t be able to tell it from the murky blobs that pass for illustrations to his “Shin.ichi.” This work is typical of the corny “auteur” writing that peppers magazines like GQ, letting readers feel worldly and well-traveled as they check out Gucci’s latest ocelot-skin briefcase collection and sniff foldout cologne ads in line at the barber shop. “[A]n evanescent drop of sperm… traversed his young member like a soya sprout in a bamboo blowpipe… they were compasses whose virile member was the needle.” My advice to Monsieur Guibert is, stick to drawing comics.
Here, I wondered whether the opportunity to write about familiar grounds would induce the native writers to turn out stronger pieces. In fact, it was the Japanese who ended up with the laziest submissions, the worst of them a wordless sequence (by someone named Little Fish) about a man who sticks a sunflower into his belly button. The unexpected runner-up is notable josei writer Moyoco Anno (the wife of GAINAX’s Hideaki Anno). A compact showcase of the author’s elegant style and precise line work, her beautiful Edo-period vignette is a completely generic Japan-flavored tale that, like the sunflower “story,” tells us nothing about Tokyo. If anything, the presence of kimono-clad courtesan leads one to believe that, when the deadline hit, Mrs. Anno had nothing to submit and ended up using an outtake from her oiran-themed Sakuran manga.
Tokyo didn’t fare much better in French hands, with boss man Frédéric Boilet himself pairing some direly insipid writing with equally uninspired photography (stylized to look like sketch work). “Love Alley” features a dialog between a photographer and a nude woman as he takes pictures of her, set to completely random pictures of urban scenery. Brimming with positively Faustian levels of snark, their exchange is topped off by the man’s enumeration of the city’s recycling rules, so self-aware in its dry repetitiveness that it would make Bret Easton Ellis wince. The only work to tell us something remotely interesting about the city is “Walteroo’s Tokyo” by Joann Sfar, where the author and his expat friend stroll the streets while the latter rants about how everyone in Japan is a phony. Much like Boilet’s illustrations seem to be the result of searching Flickr for “Tokyo,” Walteroo’s diatribes offer little that hasn’t been covered in countless Internet rants by people who didn’t like their stay in Japan. However, in the context of a pretty but non-sequitur piece and two straight-up turds, this treatment of the nation’s capital is at least passable.
Nearing the end of the book, I realized that the only French contribution I found myself enjoying was “Osaka 2034”, a superbly illustrated travel brochure from the future that, in only a handful of panels, channels the city’s spirit with an authentic nod to Japanese idiosyncrasies. Things were not looking good for the visiting team until Fabrice Neaud’s “The City of Trees” single-handledly upped the stakes. Once described to me by a resident friend as “the most generic large Japanese city,” Sendai isn’t a particularly exciting tourist destination — nonetheless, through the lens of Mr. Neaud’s talents as an artist and observer, it comes across as a more captivating locale than even Tokyo (which, admittedly, got outright shafted). From the panel enumerating the defects in the author’s borrowed bicycle to the arrow diagram explaining a street fashionista’s hip strut, it is clear that his eye for detail is matched by a flair for capturing it in crisp, eye-pleasing drawings. One may argue that there is too much detail here, as Neaud crams a fair bit more exposition into each page than any of his collaborators, augmenting most panels with entire paragraphs of small-font text. Overall, I found the complexity to be well-managed, with an information flow that feels rich without being overwhelming.
Don’t let the visual density fool you — “The City of Trees” is no mere Kunstkamera of Japanese curios; as he rides around town, the author weaves his tales of exploration into a very personal and emotional narrative. Postmodernist hacks and avantgarde scenesters take note: your pet topics, like disaffectedness, loneliness, romantic and cultural malaise, are all here, just presented with a skill that doesn’t require faux-sardonic self-wallowing to make an impact. These sentiments are all integral parts of Neaud’s journey as he escapes society to countryside castles and desolate beach fronts, pondering why he prefers stones and buildings to people. His feelings of being disconnected from humans in general are compounded by the frustration of being in Sendai without a knowledge of either Japanese or English. The author’s homosexuality adds yet another dimension to his isolation, as he searches clubbing districts and parks for any sign of gay activity in a country where it is suppressed (unless, as “Walteroo’s Tokyo” tells us, it is used for peddling fujoshi media). Sealing the story’s status as the crown jewel of the collection is a copiously annotated two-page spread with a panorama of the Sendai cityscape.
Hokkaido, the terminus of Japan‘s northeastward trek, is covered by two stories about the prefectural capital of Sapporo. Kazuichi Hanawa (of Doing Time fame) delivers the book’s only wintertime experience with a fascinating walk through a snowed-in mountain forest, while Étienne Davodeau scores another point for Les Blues with a charming tale of an old man’s fraternal affection for a local landmark. Curiously, no one was dispatched to Hakodate or the picturesque northern areas of the island. As stated in the introduction, the city choices were up to the sponsoring Franco-Japanese institutions and, if the derelict bike they gave to Fabrice Neaud is any indication of their budget, they were quite limited financially (which would also explain why Okinawa and the Ryukyus were neglected).
Overall, despite epitomizing the term “mixed bag,” Japan is a great read. Offering plenty of delights even when it fails to achieve its designated mission, the collection also serves as a solid starting point for discovering both French and Japanese cartoonists. A followup effort, Korea As Viewed By 12 Creators, has ostensibly been released by Ponent Mon. Information online is inconclusive, with nothing on the publisher’s site and stores listing it as either sold-out or available for pre-order — I encourage anyone who knows more to leave a comment (here’s hoping the dude selling a copy on Amazon for over $400 is reading this). In the meantime, go grab one of the abundant used copies of Japan, it’s worth it for “The City of Trees” alone.