View From the Top

Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators

My expectations were very high for this one, and it lived right up to them. You should spend money to obtain a copy now.

Weighing in at 256 b&w pages, this all-original anthology from Fanfare/Ponent Mon is certainly their biggest project ever to see an English language release, and they’ve risen splendidly to the challenge. The premise is very simple: sixteen stories are presented in the book, eight from artists living in Japan, including co-editor Frédéric Boilet, and eight from artists assigned to visit different portions of the nation by the French Institutes and Alliances of Japan. Masanao Amano also edits, though there’s no formal ‘edited by’ credit in the book itself - this information only comes out in Boilet’s introduction, which also isn’t really an introduction but the actual email sent to contributor Étienne Davodeau inviting him to participate.

But this initial air of informal construction belies the anthology’s coherency, which is really quite astonishing considering that it’s a large international co-production involving over a dozen creators working in multiple languages; there’s no formal theme stated for the anthology, at least not beyond ‘impressions of Japan,’ but by the time one closes the book it cannot be denied that there’s a clear focus on the frailties of human endeavor before the age and power of nature. And no endeavor is frailer in these pages than that of love; over and over, stories bring up lost love, defeated love, persons searching for love, folks in love - but for how long? Oh, not every story involves such concerns - there’s tales of art, of legend, of commerce - but it’s clear that everything people do must submit to the power of inhuman demands.

Apparently a typhoon hit the islands as many of the visiting artists were present; this is mentioned time and again throughout multiple stories perhaps inadvertently creating a running motif of ambitious detoured, thus feeding into the overall feel even more. I have to wonder how much editorial guidance was exerted in these works - Boilet, at least, has proven to be quite keen with exploiting the formal properties of the comics medium, pulling off a wildly obvious yet somehow subtle narrative trick in Yukiko’s Spinach, and working the very cover design of Mariko Parade into the book itself as both a plot point and an ironic comment on the events contained therein. Not to mention the fact that Mariko Parade was essentially an odds ’n ends jumble of miscellaneous shorts (more-or-less) smoothly integrated into a single narrative by Boilet and co-writer/co-artist Kan Takahama. Regardless of how much direct fashioning was involved, this book too is quite a marvel of a single unit, best read from start to finish.

Even on a more basic level, there’s smart little relations. The stories in the book are placed in something of a geographical order, starting south in Amakusa and moving north to conclude in Sapporo. Some cities get multiple stories (naturally, Tokyo is on top, with four), though each examines a different facet of the location. Sometimes the stories relate to one another - Boilet’s story, a cute little tour of his neighborhood punctuated with a caption-based conversation with a lover, climaxes in a tour of his building. In the very next story, Fabrice Neaud (assigned to Sendai) makes a reference to Boilet’s terrace, which we have just finished ‘walking’ on in the story before. Neaud also ruminates on the nature of homosexuality in Japan - there is a matching concern voiced in Joann Sfar’s contribution, which is structured as a tour of his assigned area (also Tokyo), just like in Neaud’s contribution. It’s a disarmingly intuitive means of joining pieces of the project together as working parts of a common experience, and greatly enhances the fundamental effect of the book.

Ah, but the tome couldn’t work if those parts weren’t good on their own - luckily, there’s plenty of great stuff in here. Having gone through everything, one can perhaps sense a slight differentiation of approach between the French and Japanese creators: the former seem more occupied with formalism and differing approaches to storytelling, while the latter seem focused on delivering straightforward aesthetic experiences, their experimentation pertinent on the surface as traditional storytelling hums underneath. It’s not a dissonant effect that’s provided; rather, the work feels balanced, nourished by multiple approaches. Just by way of example The Sunflower, by Garo veteran 'Little Fish,' provides one of the more overtly ‘arty’ contributions to the volume, a wordless story of a man with a sunflower growing out of his navel, and how he and his girlfriend relate to one another. Told exclusively in unflinching six-panel grids, and somewhat obscure in its symbolism (from what I can gather, human nature - or maybe nature itself - both binds and drives apart loved ones, which puts the story right in line with the rest of the book’s contributions), it’s nonetheless a straightforward deployment of iconography. Contrast that with The Gateway, by David Prudhomme, which oscillates between balloon-clogged narrative noise, omniscient captions, snatches of imagery, a folk tale told in text by a turtle facing the reader, and traditional dialogue, all to tell the story of what happened when Prudhomme lost his shoes, though it actually provides a panoramic geographic/historical vision of Fukuoka. Just as Little Fish’s icons are a bit difficult to grasp, Prudhomme’s storytelling array gets convoluted, though the differentiation in approach is clear.

There’s a good mix of fiction, autobiography, and semi-autobiography to be found here. The ever-capable Jiro Taniguchi provides a perfectly handsome tale of longing and youthful loss in Summer Sky; the visuals are just as crystal-clear and the storytelling as immaculately polished as one would expect from Taniguchi. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Takahama provides At the Seaside, another story of disconnected romance, set in her hometown of Amakusa. Again, it’s clean, emotional work, though it’s not clear exactly how much of it is fiction anymore. The lines get particularly blurry with the likes of Emmanuel Guibert’s Shin.Ichi, apparently an illustrated prose story set among artists in 1920’s Kyoto, except the introduction tells us that it’s actually about the early years of the Atelier des Vosges workshop in France, where Guiberet worked with the likes of Boilet, Sfar, and David B. of Epileptic. And yet, Guiberet’s grasp of period detail and vivid character is so great, that one hardly has time to ponder the probably fact-based talk of people leaving their wives when enchanted with foreign lands - I’m sure the irony of the story was not lost on the author.

Other works lunge straight into their own brand of myth. I was really looking forward to Taiyo (Blue Spring) Matsumoto’s contribution, Kankichi, but it’s not what I’d expected - Matsumoto employs a loose, sketchy style devoid of panel borders to tell a folktale about an artist literally escaping the world through his art. Elsewhere, François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters of Les Cites Obscures provide a mock guidebook to Osaka 2034, loaded with all the expected architectural detail, eventually building up to a decidedly ominous denouement, again hitting on the interrelations between nature and human progress. Both stories are simple, but effective, melting easily into their respective areas through the force of fanciful storytelling.

But the very best of the stories in here afford us a simultaneous view into the land and the heart, those two core concerns of this book. I’d never even heard of Aurélia Aurita before I read this book, but her contribution, Now I Can Die!, guaranteed my attention for the future - reminiscent of Carol Tyler in both the lush curvature of her line, the lavish sketching of her environments, the expressive bounce of her expressions, and the familial-minded autobiographical frankness of her storytelling, Aurita discusses her trip in backwards order, always returning to the paraphrased exclamation of the title, eventually regressing to her tender, secret longing, and beyond the confines of her trip back into youth itself. It’s utterly beautiful work, never less than direct in its emotional strike but possessed of a great sense of structural play. More straightforward, but no less impressive, is Neaud’s contribution, The City of Trees, in which the artist walks and rides through Sendai, every sight gorgeously rendered, his narration guiding us through relationship bitterness, sociological concerns, historical information, strange happenings, and so much more. Neaud, a founder of French publisher Ego Comme X, is well-regarded for his Journal series of autobiographical comics; it’s easy to see why after viewing this intelligent, eminently crisp twenty pages - you really feel like you’ve spent time with the author, and know him.

There’s so much more. Kazuichi Hanawa presents a fine look at the legends of Sapporo, just a pinch of his grotesque flavor included. Sfar presents a quick and dirty conversation with a friend in Japan, nastily deflating cherished cultural myths left and right (especially cutting are the comments on homosexual images in Japanese media - “Chicks here fantasize about gays like they were imaginary creatures. Fairy in Japan is a girl fantasy.” - thoughts of yaoi spring readily to mind). Davodeau closes the volume with a fictional spin on what seems like a mostly true experience, telling the story from the perspective of his traveling companion, who wraps up the running theme in this concluding line regarding the tourist-surrounded Mount Showa-Shinzan, which he regards as a brother:

Some day, you’ll see, I tell him, he’s going to get rid of all that in one fell swoop. Our family is like that.”

But regarding apocalypse, the story here that will stay with me is Nicolas de Crécy’s The New Gods. A Kirby homage? No, just an adventure into Nagoya, narrated by an abstract idea. Literally. The narrator is the germination of an artistic notion de Crécy has for a money-making logo; it hangs around with its ‘manager’ for much of the story. I don’t know if the manager is supposed to be de Crécy himself, but if it is then truly it’s a staggering work of self-depreciation, the fellow depicted as an awful slob desperately trying to cheat on his wife with hot Japanese girls while doing irreparable damage to the notion of the seductive, elegant Frenchman. He and his idea maybe learn a few things along the way, lust turning imperceptibly (for the artist) into influence, the subconscious bared to us so its slow-burn revelations can be immediately transmitted to the lucky reader. The logos of juice bottles are gods to the Idea, and Japan is truly a fine shrine to polytheism. Here the land, the city, the art, the people, the observer, the unobservable - all of it mixes into a winsome, funny story, one that just refuses to fade as time passes.

That goes for so much in this fine book. The cumulative effect is enough that everything is elevated, though the highs remain strikingly high. I doubt I’ll read ten better comics this year, though I always await surprises.