måndag 10 oktober 2011

Jiro Taniguchi: A Zoo In Winter

What I've read from Taniguchi before is one (1) collection of short stories – The Ice Wanderer – which were usually strong in the human relations/interplay and nature departments. A Zoo in Winter depicts, if I understand the text on the back cover correctly, how Taniguchi got his start doing manga. It has a lot in common with other "how I started doing manga" stories, but is well worth reading and stands squarely on its own legs. The story is well told, with interesting personalities, crisp linework and a charming love story woven into it.

Taniguchi's alter ego Hamaguchi works for a textile manufacturer, doing odd jobs while dreaming about becoming a fabric designer. The boss's disgraced (= divorced, and having-taken-a-lover) daughter enters his life when the boss trusts him to be her chaperone, taking her on various outings in Kyoto – including the zoo, where Hamaguchi likes to sit sketching the animals. On one of their outings, the young woman has arranged to meet her married lover, and elopes with him.

Hamaguchi's prospects at the company dwindle.

A friend studying at a design school arranges for a visit with a manga artist's studio for an interview to become an assistant, but when the two young men arrive, deadline is approaching at a hectic pace, and Hamaguchi is simply shanghaied into service on the spot, erasing lead art filling in solid blacks. Somewhat terrified, he even ends up doing some backgrounds because the deadline is so tight. The studio works practically all night, gets the art out to the printer's – the editor has been waiting for the pages to get finished and takes them there in a taxi – and Hamaguchi is bitten by the "manga bug".

Taniguchi's pacing isn't exactly rapid; there is a lot of time spent on the various personalities of the studio and their interplay, Hamaguchi's older brother coming to check up on him and to talk him into getting a proper job – but it turns out the brother is actually quite impressed with the work done at the studio – etc. There is also a somewhat bohemian artist friend of the manga sensei who introduces Hamaguchi to drinking and to some ladies. One of those ladies turns out to have a sickly younger sister, and asks Hamaguchi if he could take the sister for some small outings in Tokyo. Hamaguchi accepts. The sister is pretty, sweet, and very frail, and naturally she and Hamaguchi become quite fond of each other. She encourages him to draw a manga of his own, even though he has tremendous problems coming up with a story that works. With her help, though, something finally starts to take shape... and at the same time, her condition worsens, and she has to leave Tokyo.

Hamaguchi works at the story, trying to finish it for her sake, to be able to show it to her, but at the same time, she doesn't want him to see her in her brittle, emaciated state, so she forbids her sister to tell him where she is...

I won't give away the ending, or talk about the many subplots that don't really go anywhere but seem to be in the story mainly because they happened – towards the middle of the book, I actually felt that some of them were distracting a bit from the main plot, but only for a short while. Basically, those parts that don't contribute to the main plot are usually interesting enough in themselves that they aren't a distraction, and what I thought was a distraction was, in fact, a necessary part of the plot (though it was a bit slow-paced; I'll stand by that). Instead, I'll say that this is a both sweet and serious story about a young man finding his way in life, suffering some setbacks but persevering through hard work and the inspiration from a sweet girl; all told with empathy and elegant artwork.

Recommended; well worth your time.

Here is another review of the book. Artwork samples here. Another review, with artwork samples, here. (I recommend taking a look at those samples if you're in doubt whether to buy the book – I don't think the slightly bland painted cover represents Taniguchi's best work; however, his line art, complemented by excellent zip-a-tone "painting", is strong and beautiful.)

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