La Serenissima – Taniguchi’s exquisitely beautiful Venice

Venice,

Jiro Taniguchi,

Fanfare/Ponent Mon

A while back you may recall Wim in one of his Continental Correspondent columns discussing a series of travel comics commissioned by famous fashion house Louis Vuitton, each by a different and well-known creator and taking in a different global destination. One of those was by the late, great Jiro Taniguchi (whose work on The Summit of the Gods, also translated and published by Fanfare/Ponent Mon, was highly praised on here by Richard), and I’m delighted to see Fanfare/Ponent Mon publishing it in an edition which makes it much more easily available than the special editions created purely for LV. And it would be criminal if a work this exquisitely beautiful hadn’t been made available to a wider readership.

Venice sees the artist visiting the ravishingly beautiful La Serenissima, driven more by a recently discovered family connection to this historic city on the water than by any mere tourist impulse (poor Venice, a victim of its own success, is now so inundated with legions of tourists, while her own population declines, that it has become a huge bone of contention with remaining Venetians). Following the death of his mother, the artist finds a fine, lacquered box, and inside a series of old photographs, taking in a young Japanese couple, and some with a small child, snapped in Venice, and hand-painted postcards of the coty. One features the iconic Piazza San Marco, with the couple feeding the pigeons, and from the clothes and style it looks as if it were taken in the 1920s or 1930s. Was this his grandmother and grandfather in Italy? Is that his mother as a young girl alongside them? His mother never mentioned much about his grandparents and nothing about a trip decades ago to Venice. He decides to visit and try to retrace their steps, as best he can.

Eschewing a more common comics layout of sequential panels and speech bubbles, here Taniguchi instead opts for something more leisurely-paced, mostly taking the form of a series of individual paintings as he walks around this glorious, ancient city, ravishing watercolours that you can lose yourself in, with only a small amount of text here and there. The effect is like looking over Taniguchi’s shoulder as he strolls around, pausing to drink in the sights and sounds and scents of Venice, and there is, to my mind, something highly appropriate about this approach, given that Venice has, for centuries, drawn artists and poets to her canals and elegantly crumbling grand architecture to paint her, write about her, compose sonnets, it became an integral part of the Grand Tour.

Taniguchi, with his delicate style, gentle pace and eye not just for detail, but also, crucially for a location like this, for the quality of light, and how it changes, is simply perfect here. He’s not just depicting the city through his walks and visuals, he’s practically taking us there. You can almost smell the saltwater of the lagoon and canals, feel the texture of some of those centuries-old buildings fighting their slowly-losing battle against the tide of time and element. The ravishing richness of a marbled church interior is as lovingly depicted as the wall of a family home, you can see some of the old plaster rendering coming away and the bricks below, and you feel you could run your hand along the wall as you walk past with Taniguchi and feel its texture against your fingertips.

The quality of light changes as the skies brighten blue then cloud over, and Taniguchi’s gorgeous art reflects this, from the clear blues over the Piazza San Marco or an aerial view of the islands and lagoon, basking in the Adriatic sunshine, or the gloomier, watery grey light of a rainy day in the north of Italy. As we follow him around we get to see, as you may expect, many of the city’s remarkable landmark structures, but this is mixed beautifully with an artist’s eye for smaller details, from the swinging of bells in the church tower to close-ups of the people and wares in the local street markets, or reflections in a puddle of rainwater on a city square. It’s wonderfully immersive, the paucity of text leaving the visuals to carry us, and oh, that is such a good decision on Taniguchi’s part, because it allows us to be drawn in until the reader feels like they are walking with the artist alongside the canals, over the bridges, pausing for as long as we want to drink in the surroundings.

The fact that he is following a part of his family history he never knew adds a lovely, emotional element to this beautiful work, as he tries to recreate the routes his grandparents took through Venice, working from photographs but also hand-drawn art from the period, crafted by his grandfather. Past and present and family history connect through this ancient city and through art, old and new, and it simply wonderful to take in and lost yourself in.

I also found myself pondering family history, my own this time – quite a number of years ago one of my family visiting relatives in London looked at some very old postcards at a kiosk. Very old, black and white postcards, the types with the crinkly edges rather than straight, people feeding the pigeons, just like Taniguchi’s postcard, but here it was Trafalgar Square rather than the Piazza San Marco, and in the old postcard? My grandfather. Snapped unknowingly decades before, preserved in that instant on postcards and found decades after he was gone. A magical gift from the past, washed up on the ebb-tide of time. For me that added another, personal element to Taniguchi’s artist retracing old steps from the past, but in truth that was just an extra topping on the dessert of this delicious, lusciously-drawn work. Lose yourself in this book.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Tatsumi

I penned this film review originally for the Forbidden Planet blog:

Tatsumi

Directed by Eric Khoo

Zhao Wei Films/The Match Factory

Singaporean director and former comic creator Eric Khoo debuted his homage to legendary Japanese comics creator Yoshihiro Tatsumi at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival last spring, an animated feature which draws largely on Tatsumi’s much-acclaimed A Drifting Life (published in English by the good folks at Drawn & Quarterly). It’s an interesting work exploring the life and career of the godfather of the gekiga form of manga, which helped establish the comics form in Japan as a medium which could also appeal to an adult audience and not just child readers, combined with animating some of Tatsumi’s own short comic stories such as Occupied (our young artist works so hard on his children’s strips he makes himself ill, only to find new inspiration in an unlikely spot), Hell (an army reporter is sent to document the devastation of Hiroshima after the atomic blast), Good-Bye (a prostitute daughter and estranged drunken father struggle with their relationship and to survive in American occupied post-war Japan) and more.

It’s an interesting approach to documenting one of the most influential creators from the Japanese comics scene, taking us from his childhood, growing up in post-war Japan, being influenced by his big brother’s drawing, the work of manga godfather Tezuka (who he still respectfully refers to as Mister Tezuka), his first success as a boy winning newspaper comics competitions and getting a break when one of those newspapers decides to do a report on his success in the manga competitions, helping lead the way for him to work on his own children’s strips to appear regularly. This encouraging early success is diluted, however, by problems at home – his brother is often forced to stay in bed with a serious illness and slowly comes to resent his younger brother being able to go out and about while he remains an invalid. His drawing during his enforced convalescence had inspired Tatsumi but now his younger brother’s growing success fed his brother’s resentment and the fact that Tatsumi’s competition success meant he earned money which he gave to his mother to help the family finances because his father was less than efficient at looking after them made it worse.

(In Hell a young man is dispatched to document the dreadful aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing)

The film criss-crosses between animated adaptations of Tatsumi’s own short manga tales, mostly in black and white like the comics, and autobiographical sections which are in colour. The level of animation in both strands is fairly simple, it has to be said, but given the low budget that isn’t surprising. Besides which I suspect the fairly simple animation methods is a deliberate stylistic choice by Khoo and he would have stuck with it even if he had the budget for the much more expensive and time consuming forms of animation. And he would have been right to stick with the simpler version because it takes Tatsumi’s own iconic visuals, which themselves were often influenced by imagery from films and simply adapt them to the moving form of animated film, maintaining Tatsumi’s clear style effectively, something fans of his books will appreciate (and if you are new to his work then it is a good introduction to his style).

The adaptations of the short manga tales is simple but effective, although for anyone who has read the original comics (which would, I imagine, be a lot of the potential audience for the film, surely?) they don’t really offer anything new. Personally I found Hell the most effective, following a young man sent to Hiroshima, taking photographs of the nuclear devastation, including a shadow of a mother and child burnt into a wall by the blast. Years later he takes this picture to the newspapers and in the 50s it becomes an emblem of the growing anti nuclear weapon movement, leading to an international campaign, fame for the photographer (who feels guilt at making a living from documenting suffering) and yet it may all be built on an unintentional false assumption…

(young Tatsumi tells the newspaper reporters of his love for the work of Tezuka)

For myself I found the autobiographical segments to be far more fascinating, not least because Tatsumi himself was not only involved in the making of the film, especially those sections, but because he himself lends his voice to it, giving those parts an air of authenticity, the artist’s own stamp of approval, and it is quite fascinating to hear Tatsumi in his own words speaking about his life. There’s much there to fascinate anyone interested in the comics medium, regardless of their level of knowledge of the Japanese scene – some elements are pretty universal, such as having to move to the big city (leaving Osaka for Tokyo) to pursue work opportunities, struggling to find your own creative voice and style, build a reputation, secure regular work and more that I think any comics creator today, in any country or language, would still identify with.

I was particularly fascinated by sections where young Tatsumi is sharing an apartment with fellow cartoonists, all trying to make their mark. Determined to show that manga can be aimed squarely at an adult readership and deal with mature themes he becomes frustrated with the virulent reaction these new gekiga strips and the ‘concerned’ parents and teachers who attack it for being a bad influence on younger readers. It’s not for younger readers, it’s for adults, he rails, so how can it be a bad influence. Ah, his friend comments, but in the manga rental stores (where readers can borrow several comics in one go for a handful of Yen) our work is shelved right alongside the main ranks of kid’s manga, you see… It’s a problem that has beset the comics medium around the world, irrespective or language or culture – those who don’t read them often assume they are aimed only at children, so are horrified if they then see comics which pursue serious, adult storylines, not realising that they are not meant for younger eyes. The struggle to have readers accept that the medium can deal with mature themes and storylines and not just child-like jolly romps has been going on for decades, and continues still. Likewise the claims, usually by those who haven’t actually read the books but decide to pronounce judgement on them anyway (for the ‘greater good’ of course), that comics exert some svengali like evil influence to corrupt the innocent is something that’s been going on for decades in all countries, and indeed is still a problem today, and it is remarkable to think of Tatsumi nailing his gekiga manifesto the mast and dealing with these problems decades ago.

The autobiographical sections also include happier moments, not the least of which two important meetings in his life, one as an adult, meeting the woman who would be his wife, one as a young boy being introduced to the great Osamu Tezuka himself, a remarkable moment for a young boy, hugely influenced by him, just at the very start of his artistic career and being taken to meet his great hero who greets him warmly. As I said I think I found the autobiographical chapters to be the most interesting, but the comics adaptations laced throughout are also with merit and for those in the audience who haven’t read much Tatsumi they function as a good introduction to some of his themes and styles. And as with Tatsumi’s work itself the film shows that the manga world is far broader than a cursory glance at ranks of multi-volume younger reader series might suggest to those who haven’t dabbled in it much (I include myself in those ranks, recent Indy and underground manga translations by D&Q (including Tatsumi’s work), Fantagraphics and Top Shelf have been a great eye-opener to the diversity of adult manga work), and that certain problems are pretty much universal to comics creators everywhere. The film is getting a release on the arthouse cinema circuit in the UK at the moment – I spotted it due this month in Edinburgh’s wonderful Filmhouse, so check your own local Indy/arthouse cinemas to keep an eye out for it, it’s certainly well worth your time, if you are already a fan of Tatsumi or new to his work, it’s of huge interest to anyone with a love of the comics medium.