Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Taniguchi Jirō and Kusumi Masayuki: Sanpomono (2003-2005)

Art by Taniguchi Jirō 谷口ジロー, script by Kusumi Masayuki 久住昌之.  It was serialized in Tsūshin seikatsu 通信生活 from 2003 to 2005, collected in book form in 2006, and issued in bunkobon 文庫本 format in 2009 by Fusō shuppan 扶桑出版, which is what I read.

This is a really interesting manga.  Perhaps the most junbungaku manga I've yet encountered.  It's about a typical salaryman who takes walks.  That's it, essentially.  He's out on an errand, or visiting a friend, misses his bus, and decides to walk home instead, or whereever he's going;  each episode details what he sees while he's walking, and involves some very minor daily-life epiphany.  The end result is the sort of apotheosis of the mundane that is one of the major themes of modern Japanese literature.  Finding meaning, beauty, delight, solace, in a small thing encountered by accident and seen in just the right light.

The art supports this marvelously;  it's probably no exaggeration to say that the whole point of this series was to give Taniguchi a chance to experiment visually, or maybe even to show off.  The art combines photorealistic backgrounds with pretty manga-esque humans;  just as the scenery of the strolls is the thematic point, the backgrounds are the artistic point.

Photorealistic doesn't quite cover it, because he's giving you more detail than you'd pick up from a photograph.  His unbelievably fine lines and exact geometry give you a sort of heightened realism, an almost surreal level of detail and volume:  the buildings and trees fairly leap out at you.  To this amazing line Taniguchi adds amazing facility with screentones, creating effects of light and shadow, texture and touch, that pretty much define the state of the manga art.  If you want to know what it feels like to walk through a Tokyo neighborhood, just read this manga.

The art is so wonderful, and the theme so deep, that it makes the two flaws I find in the project all the more glaring.  One is that Taniguchi's handling of human facial expressions, at least in this manga, isn't as subtle as his rendering of the scenery.  I came to this right after Billy Bat, and for all the adventure comix cartooniness of that manga, the way figures are rendered in it is incredibly expressive and well-observed.  You've seen people make that exact face, stand in just that way.  Taniguchi's people, on the other hand, are a little stiff, their expressions a little blunt, and for me that meant the art just barely failed to support the theme.

The other flaw is more interesting.  I mentioned that each episode culminates in a kind of daily-life epiphany, usually through an encounter with some object.  In classic modern J-lit this object would be a cherry tree in bloom, or a locket that belonged to a former lover - those are clichés, but you can see what I mean.  Here, almost all the objects are items for sale.  A particular kind of light bulb, lunch at a particular curry shop in Kichijōji.  And the kind of epiphanies the main character experiences - the lessons he takes from them - have to do with nostalgia for a better time, but that better time is basically the Tokyo of thirty to fifty years ago.  More mid-Shōwa nostalgia, in other words.

And this was, for me, pretty disappointing.  I like a good curry lunch, a good unchanged '50s neighborhood, as much as the next guy, I really do, but this manga was so aesthetically promising that it was a let-down to realize that the meaning-in-life it was finding was basically just a cool thing to buy, or a Tokyo with simply a slightly lower degree of commercial exploitation.  Like, that's the best you can imagine?  Really?

That's where I'm glad I read the paperback (which otherwise is a bad deal, because the art really deserves to be seen as large as it can be), because it has lots of prose in the back by Kusumi detailing the making of this series, and where each episode is set (they're all real neighborhoods).  And he comes right out and admits that it was the publisher's insistence that each episode involve a product.  This was serialized in a magazine that's half general-interest mag and half mail-order catalog.  Of course they want the comix to celebrate consumption.

So I can't make up my mind whether this is art compromised by commercial concerns, or a case of art sneaking in under the radar of commercial concerns.

1 comment:

Matt said...

"Perhaps the most junbungaku manga I've yet encountered. It's about a typical salaryman who takes walks. That's it, essentially."

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you junbungaku! Now 50% motivated by crass commercial interests!