Another Ice Climber

The Quest for the Missing Girl

This is the newest release from deluxe manga specialists Fanfare/Ponent Mon, a 336-page Jiro Taniguchi work from 2000. It'll retail for $25.00 whenever it's released in the US, although I genuinely don't know when that'll be. I think there's a sample edition sitting at Fanfare's booth at the San Diego con this weekend, though, and UK readers can pre-order a copy from Ponent Mon's homepage, so some sort of street date must be imminent somewhere in the English-speaking world.

And some of you aren't gonna want to wait. I mean, just look at that cover - manga pop noir, 101%. And from the artist of Hotel Harbour View and Benkei in New York! Ah, but it's helpful to remember that those works were collaborations, which Taniguchi tends to excel at; what I've seen of his solo work tends to rise and fall on how well the subject matter accommodates his fascination with landscapes and memories, an aesthetic always rich with detailed scenes, old ways of dressing and living, and the soul as revealed through the eyes.

All of this is present in The Quest for the Missing Girl, but it lacks the lyrical ambition of Natsuo Sekikawa on Hotel, or the melancholic blood pulp of Jinpachi Mori on Benkei; it's more the sort of thing a salaryman could tear through over a pair of train commutes, without filling his head with much to distract him over the rest of the workday. I liked it ok enough, but it truly is manga as the popular novel of Japan, and I expect it's a novel not unlike several others.

Of course, having Taniguchi as the author will always provide some benefits. The visuals are as immaculate as you'd expect, the storytelling clean as can be. Don't go in looking for any of the aplomb of the artist's earlier works, though - this is a sedate Taniguchi, working his admiration for bandes dessinées into scrupulously composed cityscapes and natural scenes, with plenty of conversations and several narrated flashbacks. No speed lines here, save for a few short fights - this is 'grown-up' comics, nothing pushy for you, polite social actor.

The plot is expertly wound, professional through and through. Shiga is a muscular he-man of the mountains, a climber who's devoted his life to nature, perhaps to the decline of his social life. But one day he's called away from the hills when he learns that young Megumi has gone missing - she's the daughter of a woman Shiga once fancied and his former good friend, who died in a Himalayan climb Shiga didn't attend. He feels guilty, and has promised to protect the girl always; as you can already tell, he's something of an avatar for Japan's rugged spirit, set to descend into the underworld of Shibuya, where today's society has fallen.

But Taniguchi isn't just playing with mythic tropes - as Shiga goes about a one-man investigation into what the hell's gone on, his artist gingerly applies noir tropes to his realist depictions of then-contemporary Japan. It's very much a work of its specific time, as a lot of attention is paid to the concept of 'paid dates' and the like: an uncentralized urban phenomena of young teenage girls collecting money from working men -- often so they can buy the latest clothes and gadgets -- in exchange for anything from merely hanging around with them to full-blown prostitution. It was all over the Japanese media in the late '90s, glimpsed by Western audiences through films like Masato Harada's Bounce Ko Gals and Hideki Anno's Love & Pop, and manga like Usamaru Furuya's Short Cuts.

As such, there's an obvious element of social comment to the book, and it's no shock that Shiga's quest has him follow the rot right up to the halls of corporate power, all while undergoing a personal awakening and talking to other characters about their feelings. There is some deft storytelling in here - one particular flashback fills in the romantic triangle of Shiga's past in the space of about two pages through a marvelous blend of elliptical conversation, body language and plain ol' implication. But then, naturally, there's a later sequence that fills it in specifically, and characters talk about it to, and it all eventually feels like Taniguchi would rather avoid presenting any challenges to his readers when he could just fix their eyes on his ramrod-straight story and its strapping, noble hero. Populism!

"If you're exhausted before you tackle a peak, you'll never make it." So says one of Shiga's allies in a none-too-subtle evocation of the work's themes, which I ought to say become awesomely, ridiculously literal in the book's extended final fifth set piece, which also rolls out some high-pulp treats like a captive supporting character bound in bed with chains. Your eyes may roll, depending on your appetite for seinen suspense silliness - mine is virtually bottomless, and I was frankly glad to see the comic go a bit mad after all those furrowed brows and investigative procedures.

Still, even across the book's dryer portions, there's something to be said for Taniguchi's use of the genre. The detective has his underworld informant (or is it an underworld spirit guide?), for example, but it's a man who's self-consciously divorced himself from adult society, one who's no longer 'proper' for a waking Japanese life. The obligatory tough dame is 15 or so years old, and entirely the product of having built her own identity over the absent parent hole that his her home life. Our Hero stumbles through several misdirections, but often it's not just people lying - it's adults talking past one another, always terribly polite, always helpful, and using that very Japanese social face as a means of tucking away their crimes and desires.

No wonder Taniguchi has a reserved, strong man -- a true alienated outsider for this corrupted place! -- bust in to show them all a little old-timey spirit. Hardly uncommon for manga of this sort, but Taniguchi's cosmopolitan influences make it snap a little harder than it otherwise would. I can't call this book anything more than a minor piece among its author's works, but it's fortunate enough to have an author that can't help but polish these things until some shine has wriggled free.