We love you, Mr. Taniguchi!

*Oh, $3.99 mall sushi - nothing beats you. Sushi should not be the province of sit-down restaurants; it’s a fast, on-the-go food, and perfect for stuffing into a box, putting on ice, and handing out to eager consumers, complete with ginger-in-a-packet, wasabi-in-a-packet, and velvety smooth Kikkoman soy sauce (and I‘ve long since made peace with the fact that I’ll be hearing that song in my head every damn time I encounter that brand of soy sauce - effective advertising!).

I topped my meal off with yet another strange candy creation, and this time Hershey’s has really gone over the top - a Hershey’s Extra Dark bar, now with almonds, blueberries, and cranberries. It’s the kind of candy that (aside from rocking you $2) comes in that really fancy gold trim packaging, built to make you feel like a high-class candy bar connoisseur indeed, even as you stuff that latest sixty-seven cent smoked salmon roll into your maw while waiting for your green tea to brew.

*X-Men Questions of Vital Import Dept: Ok, so I know Marvel collected the first six issues of Joe Casey’s run as writer on Uncanny X-Men in the Poptopia trade, and I know that they only started numbering the spines (from ‘1’) on the Uncanny collections starting with the Chuck Austin era. Did the other 9 issues of Casey’s run ever get collected? I only ask because I keep running into mention of an X-Men trade bearing the cover image of Casey’s #401, which apparently came out in 2004, though nobody appears to actually have a copy, new or used. Is it vaporware? Am I fated to scouring the back-issue bins for the rest of Casey’s run, or at least the magical moment of Eddie Campbell contributing to the X-Men mythos (that’s issue #400)?

*Hmmm, a weekend. How’s about some of that older manga?

Hotel Harbour View

I’m willing to bet that this is the first place where a lot of people heard of Jiro (spelled 'Jiroh' here) Taniguchi. Willing to tackle a diverse set of genres and subject matters with his signature detailed, realist style, the contemporary reader might know of Taniguchi from works ranging from his meditative solo book The Walking Man (Fanfare/Ponent Mon), his adorned, allegorical sci-fi collaboration with Moebius Icaro (ibooks), his multi-timeline action book with writer Kan Furuyama Samurai Legend (CPM Manga), his dense, literary, Natsuo Sekikawa-written historical fiction series The Times of Botchan (Fanfare/Ponent Mon), and his atmospheric, noir-flavored, Jinpachi Mori-written artist-as-super-assassin collection Benkei in New York (Viz).

Those last two are going to come into play here - this is also a shadowy, downbeat saga of super-assassins, with many a cigarette smoked, drink quaffed, and hat tipped. And it’s written by Botchan’s Sekikawa. But Hotel Harbour View is very different from anything else Taniguchi has been involved with, so drenched is this work in urban atmosphere and romantic decay. Obviously, Viz saw something special in the work when they released it in 1990 as part of their ‘Viz Spectrum Editions’ line; it was yet another attempt to get a hold on the US comics market, this time through deluxe, trade paperback-sized books, the production values extra high (there’s lovely transparent endpapers, a strange vinyl dust jacket, and an essay by Fred Burke - note that I think there's a 2001 reissue, and I have no idea if it has any of this stuff in it), though it’s really rather a short book, only 96 pages long.

And those pages will fly by, as so much of this book exists to set scenes, with countless detailed images of Hong Kong and Paris sights, long, wordless action scenes, with a nearly fetishistic attitude toward bullets passing through the air, the paths of these tiny projectiles followed through space and into their targets with the utmost in tactile sensation duly evoked. It’s no surprise that Harold “Doc” Edgerton’s famous 1964 Bullet Through Apple photograph is visually cited at one point - this work seeks to slow down the flightof death to its most profound component moments, those that only comics and high-speed photography can possibly isolate. But why?

There’s only two stories in Hotel Harbour View, and both of them deal explicitly with love and death, with a hearty dose of vanity on the side. Both of them also feature a super-assassin on assignment - actually, the two of them look pretty much identical, but the book seems to leave open the possibility that it’s actually two different women, so we’ll let that sit too. The femme fatale is one of the most classic of noir tropes, but Sekikawa and Taniguchi refuse to place their female lead(s) in the position of seducer, or even necessarily object of affection - she’s more of a final arbitrator of mortality, walking death personified, as all of these types of characters usually are. And there’s a good deal of action and shooting in these stories, but focusing just on that would sort of be missing the point - needless to say, though, Taniguchi does some frequently astonishing work with the shooting and running, his detail at its maximum heft, but never once overpowering character movement.

The real point is the longing of the lead characters, one male and one female, one in each story. The first story (Hotel Harbour View) follows a mystery man in Hong Kong, who is apparently a Yakuza expat, and expecting an assassin to arrive to finish him off at any time. He’s struck up a relationship with a local prostitute, and often takes pictures of her, poses only for him - he burns the shots when he’s done with them, when she‘s gone. He’s kind of a director, and an actor, and as the story goes on it’s obviously that’s he’s rehearsing for his own demise, trying to get everything perfect for a glorious, romantic final stand, something that perhaps defies the realities of his life, as if it’ll all be good if he goes out with a bang. Much of the story simply follows him on his journeys about town - there’s a fine moment where he awkwardly purchases his own coffin, or strikes up a conversation with another exiled crime cog. The mood is constantly hushed, almost soothing, which makes the concluding visual aplomb of the inevitable confrontation all the more powerful, as if the creative team truly understands that the man’s life really all comes down to this.

The other story, the two-part Brief Encounter, turns the focus to the assassin herself (or her near-twin). She’s on assignment to Paris in order to kill another super-assassin, another vain man (he can’t go into action without his hat, to cover his balding scalp), and the fellow who taught her to kill; they had a romantic relationship too, by the way. The ‘joke’ of the story (if you can call it that), is that Our Heroine isn’t bothered at all with having to kill her ex-lover; after all, business is business. It’s the fact that the man doesn’t even seem to recognize her that gets under her skin, and she soon becomes deeply depressed through the notion that she was just another stop-off in the man’s life. So she begins getting close to him (excellent scene where the characters are seen reading various bande dessinée in a bookstore, with Druillet’s Lone Sloane appearing prominently), not because she needs it to kill him, but because she wants to spark some sort of memory in him, maybe so his death will mean something more to her - again, we have something of a creator for a main character, arrangements for death.

It’s really a very sad book, for all its bloodshed and gorgeous looks - everything boils down to mortality, and it seems that the only truly wonderful thing in the world is to grasp a shred of beauty in your final breaths. Nihilistic, maybe, but great for an intoxicating, soaked reverie of a book like this. It’s a quick one, but you’ll eventually slow down to go through it all again; such is its power. I’ve heard from various sources that this book used to act as something of a ‘hook’ for those who thought they didn’t like Japanese comics - understandable, as it’s quite far from the shounen/shoujo axis of the current US scene, and Taniguchi’s art style might be seen as ‘western,’ if only through the absence of typical manga visual tropes (frankly, in this tome it’s maybe closer to those BDs in that bookstore in Paris). It can still perform such feats today, and the fact that there’s so much more Taniguchi art available for readers has done nothing to diminish its strength as a book. Absolutely worth looking for.