Although I’ve been making some small progress in reducing the backlog on my shelf of shame, it doesn’t help that I occasionally make trips – ill-advised, perhaps – to the library and end up checking out a bunch of books that catch my fancy. I’ve went down several rabbit holes of this type since the start of the year. The more recent one involves Italian comics (in Croatian translation) published by Bonelli (which may be the subject of a post down the road), but it all started because I’ve been wanting to rectify a glaring blind spot in my comics reading and become at least a little better acquainted with manga. So while perusing books by the great Osamu Tezuka (whose Ode to Kirihito and Ayako I’ve read in the meantime), my eye wandered to the shelf just above it, and I spied some volumes by an author I’d never even heard of before: Jiro Taniguchi (1947-2017).
Specifically, the book that caught my eye was this one: The Walking Man. Originally published in Japan in 1992 under the title Aruku Hito (and, as indicated by the cover posted here, as Šetač in Croatia).
I flipped through a few pages and immediately decided to check out it. The art style just captivated me – it’s so lovely and evocative.
There’s not so much a story here as a series of brief vignettes in which the primary character, an ordinary guy in some medium-sized city, goes on long walks, either alone or with his dog. Sometimes he wanders off when running errands like going to the post office, and other times he sets off fully intending to take in his surroundings.
It’s almost a picture book, as there is very little dialogue – just occasional snippets of conversations between the main character and his wife, or with passersby on the street. However, the scenes are like little meditations, and I found myself pausing at individual panels not just to savor the details of the gorgeous art but also just to put myself in the main character’s place.
Personally, I could really relate to this book, because wandering off on long walks is something I’ve always liked to do. When I first moved to Zagreb in the early 1990s, I spent a lot of times just aimlessly wandering around the city’s streets for hours. Later, when we moved just outside of town ), I spent countless hours hiking around in the nearby forests and meadows with our dog…
After that, I was hooked, and eventually went on to read everything by Taniguchi I could find (which, unfortunately, isn’t too much in Zagreb’s public library system). Most of Taniguchi’s other work is not quite like The Walking Man, i.e., there is considerably more dialogue. However, one aspect that’s common to everything I’ve read by him is the frequent use of images bereft of dialogue in a way that packs quite a narrative punch. And generally, Taniguchi tells stories that on the surface seem really simple, usually featuring very ordinary people doing ordinary, everyday things and/or having mundane conversations, but which end up being very thought-provoking – personally, I found myself contemplating them for days after reading them. (Taniguchi, by the way, was an exemplar of a manga style called gekiga, which usually deals with more mature themes and tends to employ more cinematic graphic storytelling techniques.)
So besides The Walking Man, here are a few others I think everyone should read:
(1994; orig. title: Chichi no Koyomi)
After receiving word from his sister that their father has died, Yoichi Yamashita, a graphic designer living in Tokyo, travels to his old home town of Tottori to attend the funeral. Yoichi hardly ever went back to visit his family after going off to college and then getting a job, mainly because he and his father had become distant after his parents’ divorce when he was still a small child. During the vigil over his father’s body in the family home, Yoichi listens to his older sister, step-mother, uncle and other relatives and neighbors talk about his father, who worked as a barber his entire life, and reminisces about his childhood. He comes to the realization that he had seriously misjudged his father.
(1998; orig. title: Harukana Machi e)
Hiroshi Nakahara, a 48 year-old architect from Tokyo, catches the wrong train when setting off on a business trip and finds himself travelling to Kurayoshi, his old home town. Once he arrives, he feels compelled to walk around and ends up in the local cemetery, where he visits his mother’s gravestone. He closes his eyes and begins thinking about the fact that she died relatively young, when she was the same age as Hiroshi is now. He also recalls his father’s mysterious disappearance one day when he was only 14 years old – something that was never explained. Then all of sudden the world seems to spin for a moment, and when Hiroshi opens his eyes again, he finds that he is once more 14 years old and living in 1963, although with his middle-aged mind and the memories of his entire life intact. Hiroshi goes on to relive several months of his life, but this time some things proceed differently – which often has a humorous effect, as when he blurts out things that will happen (like who will win gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics the next year), or finds himself craving and indulging in a few shots of whiskey and a cigarette, or, in one instance, even flirting – quite well – with an adult woman.
However, viewing his parents with adult eyes, Hiroshi comes to a better understanding of them both, and then tries to find out why his father disappeared and perhaps even prevent it from happening.
(2003/2008; orig. title: Fuyu no Doubutsuen)
This one centers around a young man named Mitsuo Hamaguchi, an 18 year-old aspiring artist, during a three year period of his life from the beginning of 1966 through the end of the 1968. He quits his job in a small wholesale fabric company in Kyoto and moves to Tokyo after he’s offered a job as a junior art assistant in the studio of a successful mangaka (manga artist). The rest of the story sees him learning the ropes of the trade, and also acclimating himself to life in a big city and making friends, and then falling in love with a young woman in very poor health who helps him conceive of and then finish his first manga story. In some ways this a coming of age story, and parts of it are autobiographical, but regardless it is deeply moving.
As I noted above, all of these are sort of low-key, quiet stories, but there is something rather epic about all of them – they’re really novels in the genuine sense of the word.
As a post-script, I’ll add another recommendation: a collection of shorter works under the title The Ice Wanderer (2004; orig. title: Tuodo no Tabibito).
The six stories in here (the title story, “White Wilderness,” “Our Mountains,” “Shokaro,” “Kaiyose-Jima” and “Return to the Sea”) are thematically tied, as they mostly deal with people interacting with the natural environment in some way or another, and they’re mostly inspired by or, in two cases, direct adaptations of works by Jack London – the odd one out, “Shokaro,” is about a young aspiring mangaka who rents a tiny room in the eponymous building – a former bordello. I think besides being partially autobiographical, it’s a reference to London’s days as an aspiring writer in San Francisco. It’s a good sampler of Taniguchi’s work, whether as an artist (that goes without saying), writer and also adapter of works by others. My personal favorites here are the aforementioned “Shokaro,” as well as “Kaiyose-Jima,” about two kids in a coastal village who go on an ill-advised outing in a skiff and get stranded on a little islet after hitting a patch of rough weather.
** Note: if you click any Amazon link to a book in the post, and end up buying anything, a (very) little something comes back to us here at the Atomic Junk Shop. Thank you.