The Walking Man

Title: The Walking Man
Japanese Title: 歩くひと (Aruku hito)
Artist: Taniguchi Jirō (谷口ジロー)
Publication Year: 2004 (England); 1992 (Japan)
Publisher: Fanfare / Ponent Mon
Pages: 155

Taniguchi Jirō is a popular manga artist that I’m always surprised more people don’t know about. His beautifully detailed, hyper-realistic artwork is simply amazing. The other day I stumbled across his one-volume manga The Walking Man in an independent bookstore, and the cover was so gorgeous that I went ahead and paid the import price for the book. It was worth it. As soon as I got home and finished reading it, I immediately read it again. That’s how wonderful and immersive the art is.

The Walking Man doesn’t tell a story, necessarily; it merely depicts a series of walks taken by its middle-aged protagonist. Each eight-page chapter has a broad theme, like taking the trash out at night or finding a shortcut through a narrow alley. The reader follows the protagonist on his walks, which are laid out in a beautiful use of paneling with a minimum of text and sound effects. The rich visual detail and minimalist storytelling make the reader almost feel as if he or she is actually walking along through the small-town Japanese cityscape inhabited by the protagonist. As a result, flipping through this manga is a thoroughly engaging experience.

For manga fans who might appreciate more conventional dramatic storytelling (and slightly less cartoonish character designs), Taniguchi’s later, two-volume A Distant Neighborhood (1999) is also a compelling read. Although the subject matter is quite different, readers who enjoy nostalgic slice-of-life manga featuring normal people moving through detailed visual depictions of Japanese cities might also consider checking out Kōno Fuyumi’s Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms (2003), which follows several generations of Hiroshima survivors in a story that is touching but never overly political. Perhaps illustrations of everyday life such as those contained in the work of Taniguchi and Kōno don’t have the immediate, flashy appeal of more mainstream series, but there’s a lot to enjoy and appreciate in these manga, and I think every anyone who reads Japanese literature should at least give them a chance.

Drop Dead Cute

Title: Drop Dead Cute
Author: Ivan Vartanian
Publication Year: 2005
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Pages: 160

When I first picked up this book several years ago, I was quite disappointed. With a title like “Drop Dead Cute” and references to Murakami Takashi and Nara Yoshitomo in the blurb on the inside cover, I had expected the book to contain more of what I saw as “anime art” (or perhaps “manga art”). In fact, however, the deliciously pink cover image by Takano Aya is as close as this book gets to anime art. The rest of the book isn’t even cute. It’s disturbing, yes, and violent, yes, and all sorts of interesting and creative, but not cute.

Which leads me to wonder, upon closer examination, what exactly the title means by “cute.” To me, “cute” is something that elicits an emotional response along the lines of “Oh my gosh I want to love on it.” The pieces exhibited in Drop Dead Cute aren’t exactly that sort of cute (and, to that effect, I would wager that the emphasis in the title is actually on “drop dead”). The book is filled with animals, however, and plant life. Much of this flora and fauna is anthropomorphic. There are also plenty of young women (and almost no men) and a profusion of soft pastel colors.

Kudo Makiko opens the book with her oil paintings of young girls, perhaps sleeping, perhaps dreaming, who have found themselves in strange landscapes guided only by cats and dogs. Murata Yuko renders animals and landscapes in simple compositions consisting of wide, sweeping brushstrokes. Hosoya Yuiko is represented by pencil drawings of sullen young women that look like the work of a beginning art student, with finger smudges and blank backgrounds. Ban Chinatsu, famous for her collaboration with Murakami Takashi in the New York Japan Society’s “Little Boy” exhibition of 2005, paints huge acrylic canvases filled with baby elephants in pursuit of underpants. Murase Kyoko works in all sorts of media, from traditional oils to white out pen on yellow legal paper, but her naked drowning girls are equally unsettling no matter what her canvas. Tabaimo’s work is, as always, something straight out of a horror movie.

My two favorite artists in this collection are Aoshima Chiho and Takano Aya. Although Aoshima claims that she doesn’t read manga or watch anime, her works closely resemble the anime style, filled as they are with fantastic, wide-eyed girls sporting wild hair of various colors and very little clothing. In her work, these girls are bound, eaten, digested, rotting, free floating, and reborn in amazingly detailed, brightly colored graveyards and Edens. Since the majority of her work is digital, her photo manipulations, which juxtapose her cartoon-like demon girls against ordinary Japanese backdrops, blend seamlessly into the rest of her oeuvre. Takano, whose artwork was used for the cover of this book, does in fact draw manga, or at least sequential art resembling manga, and she is represented in this collection by a short, colorful, manga-esque piece titled “Subterraned,” which I think is by itself worth the price of the entire book. Her artist’s statement, which delves into themes of sci-fi and eroticism, is also quite interesting.

Each of the ten artists is given a three page introduction, with doodles at the top of the pages and text based on interviews at the bottom. Following each introduction are eleven pages showcasing the works of the artist, with one, or occasionally more, pieces per page. The titles of the pieces are given in English, but each artist has also handwritten the original title of the piece next to the English entry. The book begins with a twelve page, well-illustrated introductory essay by Ivan Vartanian and ends with short biographies of all the artists. Everything is full color, and the publication quality is just about as high as it can go.

The artists featured in this book are:

Kudo Makiko
Aoshima Chiho
Murata Yuko
Aoki Ryoko
Hosoya Yuiko
Takano Aya
Ban Chinatsu
Murase Kyoko
Kusama Yayoi
Tabaimo