Last weekend, one of France’s most celebrated graphic novelists passed away. You might be surprised to learn that he was Japanese. Indeed, Jiro Taniguchi was “knighted” as a chevalier in France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2011. While hailed in the press as a manga author, Taniguchi’s style was much closer to that of his European colleagues. His books were intimate and introspective, unlike the fast-action, hyper-dramatic, stereotypes that dominate the pages of manga. His drawings were more complex than typical manga strips, containing myriad details to realistically portray the world occupied by his characters.
The Evolution of a Heralded Artist
Born in 1947, Taniguchi was self-taught. In his early twenties, he left his career as a wholesale clothing manager to work in the manga industry. Like many young artists, Taniguchi started by performing numerous menial tasks for a variety of studios. Eventually, he landed an apprenticeship with Kazuo Kamimura, a well-known mangaka in Japan. Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill is loosely based on one of Kamimura’s most popular novels, Lady Snowblood. Working with Kamimura, however, led Taniguchi to the discovery of European comic artists and graphic novelists. He was immediately and permanently captivated by the western form of graphic storytelling.
Taniguchi’s early works, follow more closely the hard-boiled style of traditional manga authors. At first, he wrote detective stories, romances, and adventures. Starting in 1984, however, his work began to take on a different tone. In partnership with Natsuo Sekikawa, Taniguchi produced The Times of Botchan, a series of Japanese literary classics from the Meiji period (1865-1912). Many consider this 5-volume series, which documents a part of Japan’s social and political history, to be the first literary manga ever published.
By the early 1990s, Taniguchi’s work was becoming more reflective and realistic. His stories focused on average people going about their daily lives, their relationships with each other and with nature. In 1990, he published Walking Man (L’Homme qui march). The story follows a solitary wayfarer who wanders at random, taking time to appreciate the people and simple pleasures he encounters along his path.
Storylines Punctuated by Moments of Reflection
Picked up by the Belgian publisher, Casterman, in 1995, Taniguchi rapidly seduced French graphic novel fans. While not exactly autobiographical, many of Taniguchi’s later stories originate from his personal experiences. They take on universal themes such as attachment to family, the beauty of nature, man’s relationship with animals, and childhood memories. Taniguchi claimed that he took little inspiration from other manga authors. “In daily life, you don’t often see people yelling and crying out while rolling on the ground”. Instead, Taniguchi admired European graphic novelists and became perhaps better known outside of his native country. More than one million copies of his books have been sold in France alone.
In 1998, he published A Distant Neighborhood (Quartier Lointain), regarded as his greatest masterpiece. This is the story of a middle-aged businessman who, tired and exhausted from an intense business trip in Kyoto, awakens to find himself on board the wrong train. Rather than returning to his apartment in Tokyo, he is bound for the small village where he grew up. Upon arrival, he decides to visit his former neighborhood and the cemetery where his mother is buried. Here, under a late afternoon moon, he is transported back in time to his 14-year-old self while retaining all of his adult memories. In 2003, A Distant Neighborhood won the Alph-Art prize for best scenario at the Angoulême International Comic Festival, considered by many to be the most prestigious convention in the comic industry.
I discovered Taniguchi a few years ago, in the French section of my local library. The Ann Arbor collection does not carry any of Taniguchi’s works in Japanese. But, there are copies of his novels in both French and English. Le Journal de Mon Père (My Father’s Journal), is a heartfelt, historical novel that again follows the life of a male protagonist that returns to his hometown of Tottori after his father’s death (also Taniguchi’s hometown). In 1952, a monstrous fire destroyed two-thirds of Tottori. The book chronicles this devastating event in Japan’s history while at the same time relating the story of a young man’s coming-to-terms with parental decisions that he’d deeply resented.
While the drawings of this novel are all black and white, Taniguchi beautifully depicts the intricacies of Japanese life. Japanese clothing, architecture, city streets, marriage and funeral ceremonies, and the fire’s rampage and aftermath, are all portrayed with mindful consideration. Whether drawing a cityscape or the interior of a cluttered room, Taniguchi’s linear and detailed style fills the page with expressiveness, conveying beauty and emotion in the midst of everyday life.
Far-reaching and painstaking precision
Throughout his career, Taniguchi illustrated and/or authored more than 50 works, many of which contained multiple volumes. Translated into several languages, Taniguchi received numerous literary awards from organizations throughout Japan and Europe. Several of his works have been adapted to film.
In 2014, at the request of and in cooperation with the Louvre, Taniguchi published Guardians of the Louvre (Les Gardens du Louvre). This novel is one of several, commissioned by the Louvre, that explores the lives and works of many of the famous artists that are on display in the famous museum. That same year, at the behest of Louis Vuitton, Taniguchi illustrated one of the fashion giant’s Travel Books. Taniguchi’s describes Venice. Vuitton has published several high-end travel guides but this one is unique in that it contains no photographs, only Taniguchi’s illustrations and an accompanying storyline that leads the reader past famous sites in the floating city.
Despite the prolific nature of his work, Taniguchi never learned to use computers to aid his production. All of his panels are painstakingly hand-drawn, using paper, pen, and a craft knife. This heralded artist, dead at the age of 69, will be sorely missed. But he is leaving behind a profuse and humanistic body of work, spanning both Asian and European cultures, that will long be remembered for its exceptional artistry and literary merit.
This video, Dans les pas de Jirô Taniguchi, L’homme qui marche, provides a short documentary about Taniguchi’s work. Francophiles will appreciate the fact that the film is in French but if you only understand English, you also might want to check it out. The film shows Taniguchi visiting and photographing the places that gave him inspiration. It also contains numerous examples of Taniguchi’s exemplary illustrations and gives the viewer an idea of the vast scope of his artistry.