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Greg reads manga! (And probably still doesn’t “get it.”)

The title of this post, by the way, does not imply that I didn’t like this book.  I mean that it’s not what seems to be “regular” manga, so I probably still haven’t experienced the true style.  The comic I did read doesn’t feature girls with eyes taking up most of their face, talking animals (it does feature animals, however!), boys who shout all the time and fight giants robots, or lots of motion lines because no one can sit still.  But it’s by a well-respected Japanese artist!

The manga is The Ice Wanderer and other stories by Jiro Taniguchi.  It’s published by Ponent Mon and costs $21.99.  It collects stories published from 1994-2004, at least one of them adapted from a Jack London story (all of them might be, actually – I haven’t read very much Jack London, so I’m unfamiliar with the source material).  Six stories make up the collection, and it’s well worth your money – if you can deal with the fact that the spine on the book is one the wrong side!  What’s up with that????

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Taniguchi gives us tales of the wilderness and man’s place in it.  He starts with exciting, man vs. nature kind of stories, and gradually, they become more reflective of how men learn about their place in nature and how to respect it.  That’s a broad look at the stories, as the early ones in Alaska show men respecting nature even as they battle the elements, while the later stories are still very exciting even as they become more pensive.  There’s a short story about a cartoonist living in an apartment building that seems out of place, but it fits in with the theme of people trying to figure out their environment and how to live in it.

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Each story features a protagonist who has to learn something about himself (they’re all male) and his place in the world.  This ties the stories together, from the first one, “The Ice Wanderer,” which features Jack London himself as the protagonist, to the final one, “Return to the Sea,” in which an unnamed marine biologist desperately tries to discover the mythical whale cemetery.  In each, the protagonist must make a choice that will define his life forever.  The choices are difficult, but they’re meant to be.  How else can the protagonists grow?  So we get Jack London and his companions meeting an old Chilkoot tribesman who saves them from a winter storm and tells them he is looking for the lord of the north, the white moose, to ask him to save his people.  Jack and his friends are in the mountains panning for gold, but Jack must soon make a decision about what’s really important in life and what is worth dying for.  In the second story, two men take the body of a third back to civilization, but there are wolves circling them and harrying them throughout the story.  This is the most thrilling and frightening of the collection, because we’re not entirely sure who will survive, if either of them will.  They also have a choice to make, between abandoning their responsibilities and trying to save themselves or trying to survive but breaking a promise in the process.  In the third story, a man hunts a bear that killed his son.  In doing so, however, he may betray the rest of his family.  In the fourth story, a boy must choose to take control of his life and not allow himself to be pushed around, but he soon learns that growing up means some things become far less safe.  The fifth story tells of the cartoonist, who lives alone and cuts himself off from the rest of the apartment building’s tenants, but he comes to realize that he can’t live that way and he must reach out to someone.  Finally, “Return to the Sea” is a portrait of a struggle between respecting the privacy of death and the communion we feel with all living things.  The marine biologist appears to be someone who just wants to find the whale graveyard because he’s selfish and wants the thrill of discovery, but he soon realizes it’s something much deeper, a connection to the whale he has studied for years that goes beyond mere scientific inquiry.  This makes him understand his place in the world much better.

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The plots of the stories tie them together, but so to do the motifs Taniguchi uses throughout the book.  Life and death, of course, are closely linked in the stories.  The whale that heads off to the graveyard is going there to die, of course, but he teaches the marine biologist something about life as he does so.  This death, coming at the end of the book, is countered with a birth, as a dying dog in one story gives birth to a single pup, which is traditionally seen as a blessing.  Each character gets a chance to be reborn in different ways.  Master Gunpachi, the protagonist of “Our Mountains,” has sworn not to pick up a gun again after the bear killed his son.  When the bear returns, however, he chooses to hunt it because it’s in his nature.  On the mountain, however, he is reborn: he kills the bear, but gains a new respect for life, a respect he had buried when his son died.  The fourth story, “Kaiyose-Jima,” features Takashi, a young city boy sent to a fishing village while his mother is hospitalized.  In the village he meets Yae-Chan, a girl a few years older than he.  Yae is wonderfully free-spirited, and she helps show Takashi how to stand up for himself and take some chances.  But her attitude also leads to danger, and one day she and Takashi go too far out to sea.  This is the dark side of living life to the fullest, and Taniguchi invites us to ask whether Takashi would have been better off not taking the chance.  Of course, he doesn’t believe it himself, but he allows for that possibility.  The idea of death leading back into birth is there throughout the book, even in a story as incongruous as “Shôkarô,” the story about the cartoonist.  The story is named after the apartment building, which used to be a brothel.  The unnamed artist is reborn when he leaves the building, which burns down at the end of the story.  However, while he was there, he experienced death in both the abstract (a middle-aged woman is touched by his drawings because it reminds her of her brother, who died young) and in the concrete (he sees a ghost, which isn’t all that concrete, but he does experience it directly).  This informs his future and helps him become a better person.

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Taniguchi’s magnificent art helps turn these stories into more than mere adventure stories.  His landscapes are gorgeous, especially in the stories set in Alaska.  He places his characters in stark wilderness, dwarfing them with immense mountains and obliterating them with the starkness of the snow and the rocks.  The idea of man existing as part of nature is most evident in the art, as the people in the stories become part of the world around them instead of rising above it and dominating it.  These are people locked in a struggle with their surroundings, trying to find a balance within their worlds.  He has a wonderful sense of design, both with the landscapes and the more dynamic scenes.  More than anything, this is a thrilling book to read.  When the wolves gather to attack the man taking the corpse back to civilization in “White Wilderness,” Taniguchi gives us a wonderful fight scene, brutal, nasty, and confused, but he never lets the action overwhelm the storytelling.  He paces the stories extremely well, building the tension throughout and letting us see the way the characters are part of the environment before focusing on them, so that we’re always reminded of where they fit.  The final story, “Return to the Sea,” is a masterpiece of artistic rendering.  His whale is spectacular, retaining what makes it an animal while bonding with the marine biologist on a level beyond his understanding.  Taniguchi never allows us to forget that it’s an animal, but he also shows us that the animals can communicate with us without speech.  He does this very well throughout the book: the moose in the first story is a totemic figure, communicating with Zing Ha, the man who saved Jack London’s life; the stalking wolf in “White Wilderness” is almost malevolently intelligent; the bear in “Our Mountains” a horrific force of nature.  Taniguchi’s beautiful drawings make them more than mere animals, but actors in the human drama going on in each story.

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This is a wonderful book that gives us thoughtful insight about the nature of man and his relationship with the world around him.  It’s exciting, thrilling, reflective, and hopeful.  Taniguchi’s stories and art create a world where people learn powerful truths about the universe and themselves.  And for those of you who really, really like manga, well, one of the protagonists kind of looks like Tetsuo from Akira.  Sorry, that’s all I’ve got.  You’ll just have to buy the book and check it out!  And maybe someday I’ll read some “real” manga.  It could happen!

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15 Comments

I mean that it’s not what seems to be “regular” manga, so I probably still haven’t experienced the true style. The comic I did read doesn’t feature girls with eyes taking up most of their face, talking animals (it does feature animals, however!), boys who shout all the time and fight giants robots, or lots of motion lines because no one can sit still. But it’s by a well-respected Japanese artist!

Way to oversimplify. That’s like saying Runways isn’t a regular superhero comic because it doesn’t ape Kirby. Manga has a whole range of aesthetic looks. What you’re describing is a specific subgenre of manga. What you’re describing is a specific subgenre of manga. This book is just as “real” a manga as one of those big-eyes and robots books you are talking about.

What happened to everyone’s sense of humor? I know, T., that I’m oversimplifying. And I know this is regular as any manga. It just seems like the manga that everyone goes gaga about is teenaged romance and big-time action stuff. This is different than that. Of course, you ignored the fact that I thought this was excellent and think everyone should read it!

Well, I ignored that fact because I had no problem with that part of the review! ;-)

Jiro Taniguchi is considered a somewhat “artsier” mangaka, is he not?

he’s not really as “commercial” as the rank-and-file manga… and i often get the sense that a lot of his work is aimed more towards Europe than Japan (such as Icaro, his collaboration with Moebius).

i tend to group him almost in the same category as someone like Frederic Boilet.

Way to oversimplify. That’s like saying Runways isn’t a regular superhero comic because it doesn’t ape Kirby.

Actually, I’d say it’s more like saying that Runaways isn’t a regular superhero book because it isn’t gratuitously violent or sexual. Which is true.

That doesn’t mean that those other books are more right or authentic, just that they’re done in the more common style.

And, from what I’ve seen, the big-eye/robot books tend to be more common than manga done in other styles.

Actually, I’d say it’s more like saying that Runaways isn’t a regular superhero book because it isn’t gratuitously violent or sexual. Which is true.

That’s a good analogy, but I also think mine is appropriate since Greg was talking about aesthetics too.

And, from what I’ve seen, the big-eye/robot books tend to be more common than manga done in other styles.

I was going to leave this alone since Greg said he was just joking, but I’ll respond on the topic again since you brought it up.

What you describe are definitely the most popular types of manga, just like Big 2 superheroes are the most popular types of American comics. But that doesn’t mean that say Daniel Clowes is not a “real” or “regular” American comic.

There are several categories of manga, just like there are several categories of American comics. What Greg is probably thinking of is Shonen manga, which is the big eyes, ninjas and robots stuff. It’s the equivalent of the superhero genre here. Just like American comics would seem interchangeable with superhero comics to an outsider, the Shonene manga seems to be interchangeable with manga in general to manga outsiders. This book Greg’s reviewing seems to fall more into Gekiga manga category. You can find a click here for a very good short article about this. You can click here for a description of manga categories in general.

What you describe are definitely the most popular types of manga, just like Big 2 superheroes are the most popular types of American comics. But that doesn’t mean that say Daniel Clowes is not a “real” or “regular” American comic.

not to discount your point about aesthetics, T., but i don’t think it would be completely inaccurate to say that something like Fun Home is not a “regular” American comic, not just because of its style but also because of its publication format (original graphic novel–never serialized in floppies–published by “real” publishing company).

to some degree, couldn’t the analogy be applied to gekira such as the work of Taniguchi and Tatsumi? a lot of their stuff isn’t serialized either, and general eschew a lot of the visual conventions of just about every other manga category.

If one style is the most common or dominant, it is the regular style.

Anything not in that style can therefore be fairly labelled as “not regular”.

[...] Reviews: Here’s a new one: Indonesian blogger huamulan03 has a detailed review of Tachibana Higuchi’s Swan Lake. At the Manga Maniac Cafe, Julie checks out vol. 7 of Sugar Sugar Rune, vol. 6 of Beauty Pop, vol. 1 of Megami Deluxe, and vol. 6 of ES Eternal Sabbath. Tangognat takes a quick look at Crossroad and The Devil Within, two series that handle similar themes in very different ways. About Heroes posts brief reviews of recent titles, from Emma to Gon. At the MangaCast, Aliera is not impressed with Pop Travel Japan: Essential Otaku Guide but is a little more kindly disposed toward Calling You; meanwhile, MangaManiac reads vol. 1 of Prince Charming. Michael May has a lengthy review of MW at Blog@Newsarama. Jiji reviews vol. 1 of Pick of the Litter at Manganews. Greg Burgas reads Jiro Taniguchi’s The Ice Wanderer at Comic Book Resources. [...]

That’s like saying Runaways isn’t a regular superhero comic because it doesn’t ape Kirby.

I probably shouldn’t pour fuel on the fire, but this statement, or variations thereof, is a lot more true of the American comics landscape than the original analogy is for the Japanese one.

The real difference when Western fogeys like myself see when we encounter manga is that we are so acclimated to one-format-one-genre dominating the comics industry that it’s a bit startling to realize that manga really is an actual book publishing industry across all genres, much more comparable to U.S. prose paperbacks than U.S. comics. The stuff that’s most successful here probably doesn’t have a lot to do with what’s big in Japan, any more than the American success of, say, Danielle Steel or John Grisham is reflected in our comics industry. The more I see of the stuff the more convinced I become that, if anything, Warren Ellis was understating the case about our side of the pond when he made the ‘nurse novels’ comment.

This is Greg H. having a grouchy morning, by the way, not Mr. Burgas, so don’t yell at HIM.

“The stuff that’s most successful here probably doesn’t have a lot to do with what’s big in Japan, any more than the American success of, say, Danielle Steel or John Grisham is reflected in our comics industry.”

Yes and no; most of the stuff that’s popular here is also popular in Japan (partially because popularity here is helped out by crossover with anime fandom, and series that aren’t popular there are less likely to get anime in the first place). But there’s certainly stuff that’s popular in Japan that hasn’t made much of a splash here, and there are entire areas of manga that haven’t made it to the US at all (salaryman manga, for example). (The US also trails behind Japanese trends, so Naruto is doing better here than there at the moment, for example.)

Anime News Network just released the top 10 collected volumes in Japan for the week of December 4-10, so let’s look at that for an example. The top four are all Shonen Jump titles (One Piece, Bleach, D. Gray-Man and Gintama); the first two are definitely popular in the US, while the other two have some following but less so (and their anime adaptations haven’t been released here). #5, Pluto, is a spinoff of Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy), which gives it more cachet there than here.

#6 is Prince of Tennis, which has a definite US following. #7 is Vagabond, which has a US release and seems to be well thought of but not that well-known. #8, REAL, is by the same creator and isn’t licensed in the US. Both are by the creator of a well-known series (Slam Dunk) that’s kind of struggled so far in the US, so again there’s a name-recognition factor that the US doesn’t have as much of. #9, Steel Ball Run, is also a spinoff of a series that only has a cult following in the US (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure). #10, Kaicho wa Maid-Sama, I’ve never heard of until today.

This isn’t a particularly scientific examination, partially because being a single week’s sales skews it toward titles that came out that week rather than measuring popularity across the board–last week’s list didn’t have any SJ titles, and Vagabond, REAL, and Pluto were #1-3. What it does suggest is that the biggest titles are more likely to be big in both countries–much like a list of top American films in Japan would probably be primarily blockbusters–but that associations such as name recognition and connection to established titles plays a role in Japan that it can’t in the US. However, there’s likely to be a much bigger differences with mid-level titles.

Or to put it more simply, much of the stuff that’s most popular and visible in the US is also popular and visible in Japan, but there’s a much wider range of material that’s popular in Japan that isn’t so much in the US. Certainly the range of titles in Japan’s top ten is much wider than in the US, enough that one style can’t fairly be called dominant. (Here’s the link to the Nov. 27-Dec. 3 top ten list, which is less skewed to SJ titles:

http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2007-12-05/japanese-comic-ranking-november-27-december-3

Click through to the descriptions of each title and you’ll see what I mean.)

Yeah, actually, it would be accurate to say that Daniel Clowes does not make “regular” comics.

His characters are not the usual archetypes, his plots are not the standard style, and his color palette is not the common bright fare.

His publishing schedule isn’t even regular.

I thought it was pretty clear that when Greg said “real”, he meant it in a colloquial sense. Like the pick-up game at the park. While technically, all those people are playing basketball, they’re not “real” basketball players.

I’m very disappointed that no one took the bait and impatiently explained to Greg exactly why (including pertinent historical details) the spine is on the wrong side.

Still, there are plenty of embarrassingly pedantic comments here for me to giggle at. Thanks!

[...] Unlike the previous (and first, unless you count Akira) manga I read, this is more like what we think of when we think “manga.”  There are several volumes of the series, there’s a precocious girl who’s in college but looks about twelve, and there’s a boy with hair that obscures his eyes.  In addition to that, it’s excellent. [...]

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