Review, Jirō Taniguchi memorial edition: The Millennium Forest

One of the last manga Jirō Taniguchi had been working on before he died (on this day, three years ago) was The Millennium Forest. Designed to span 5 volumes, the small fragment that he was able to complete has been published posthumously.

The Millennium Forest (光年の森 / Kōnen no mori, lit. “light-year forest”; German title: Im Jahrtausendwald)
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Author: Jirō Taniguchi
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Rue de Sèvres / Shōgakukan)
Year: 2018 (originally 2017)
Number of volumes: 1

Pages: 78 (comic: 43)
Price: € 20
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/hardcover/im-jahrtausendwald/96224 (German); https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=152591
ISBN: 978-3-551-72810-4

The publisher(s) clearly intended this book to be more than just another manga. Almost half of the pages are editorial texts, layouts, sketches and other preparatory drawings, and obituaries. Whether this 20 € book (albeit in full colour and hardcover) is a cynical rip-off or a dignified tribute to Taniguchi is a matter of debate. It may be tempting to extrapolate from the information given in the afterword and the bonus material and imagine what a manga series The Millennium Forest might have become. But let’s look at what it is.

The protagonist is 10-year old Wataru. One summer, he leaves Tokyo to live with his grandparents in a remote village situated in mountainous woodland. The story is set in an unspecified past – if we take Wataru for Taniguchi’s alter ego, the year would be 1958 – but it could just as well take place in the present day. After all, relocating from town to country or vice versa is a timelessly popular topic in Japanese fiction. At first, Wataru doesn’t get on with his schoolmates. When wandering in the woods one day he walks into them, and they dare him to climb a tall tree. To everyone’s surprise, including his own, he manages to climb higher than any of the local kids before. The kids are impressed, they make friends with Wataru, and he makes peace with living in the countryside.

That’s one way to summarise this little story. Another would be to speak of the forest as the actual protagonist, or at least as a character in its own right; a forest which mysteriously appears out of the ground as a result of an earthquake, and which is populated by fantastic creatures that only vaguely resemble birds, rabbits, and maybe serows. One could also mention that Wataru possesses the gift of speaking with trees and animals. And that that the tree he climbs saves him from falling down by catching him with a twine.

Are these supernatural elements really necessary? Of course it could be argued that this was meant to be a much longer story which would have placed more emphasis on the fantasy aspects and integrated them more tightly into the seemingly mundane setting, and ultimately conveyed an environmentalist message through them. But as it is, The Millennium Forest would have been a simpler and perhaps stronger story without any supernatural bits. The most powerful of Taniguchi’s manga had always been the firmly realistic, semi-autobiographical ones, such as The Walking Man or Chichi no koyomi.

But we haven’t even talked about the art yet. Over 40 oversized pages (22,5 × 28 cm) painted in watercolour are quite a treat. Taniguchi’s impressive skill in this medium shows in all the subtle modulations, particularly on characters’ faces. At the same time, distinct outlines retain the clarity that is evident in all of Taniguchi’s art. As for the landscape format of the book – the afterword emphasises the difficulties of launching such a product in the Japanese book market – it doesn’t do much for me; a square or regular portrait format would probably have worked just as well. If anything, it obscures the reading order of the panels on some pages, but that might also be due to the flipping by the German publisher.

Recommended if you can check it out from your local library, or for those who wish to complete their collection of Taniguchi’s manga (although there always seems to be ‘new’ material by Taniguchi getting translated).

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


Review, Jirō Taniguchi memorial edition: Chichi no Koyomi

One blogpost is not enough to pay homage to the recently deceased Jirō Taniguchi, so here’s another one.

Another noteworthy but largely overlooked manga by Taniguchi is Chichi no Koyomi (My Father’s Journal), of which there is no English translation either. The reason for its negligence in the Western world is probably a different one, though: it might be too similar to Taniguchi’s magnum opus A Distant Neighborhood – which was originally published four years *after* Chichi no Koyomi. Reading these two manga in the ‘wrong’ order makes Chichi no Koyomi feel like a compressed, less daring (no supernatural time travel) and more episodic (thus somewhat haphazard) rip-off of A Distant Neighborhood, when in fact the latter was more of a logical continuation or evolution out of the former.

Die Sicht der Dinge (父の暦 / Chichi no Koyomi)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Jirō Taniguchi
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Shōgakukan)
Year: 2008 (original run 1994)
Pages: 278
Price: € 16,90
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/softcover/die-sicht-der-dinge/20582 (German)
ISBN: 978-3-551-77731-7

Yōichi Yamashita (i.e. not Taniguchi himself but an autobiographically influenced fictitious character) is a middle-aged salaryman who lives in Tokyo with his wife. When his father dies, he needs to return to his native Tottori for the funeral, for the first time in 15 years. There he meets his uncle, his sister and other characters with whom he reminisces about his father’s life, Yōichi’s own childhood and how the rift between the two came to be.

The events in the past are shown as flashback sequences, although they take up more space than the events in the present. I wouldn’t call the present-day sequences a framing narrative, though, because several chapters begin in the past, then switch to the present, before they switch back to the past again, so that the past frames the present. There is some structural variation and jumping back and forth in time. The most strikingly structured episode is the one in which seven-year-old Yōichi runs away from home to his uncle in search of his mother: adult Yōichi begins to tell this episode on pp. 19-25, but doesn’t pick it up again until 130 pages later.

Another interesting device, albeit employed only tentatively, is an unreliable narrator: two events from Yōichi’s childhood are first shown as he remembers them, but later he learns from his relatives how he actually misremembered them. This device makes the story more dynamic; just as in A Distant Neighborhood, the past isn’t fixed but changeable. However, there is also an emphasis on a historic event in Chichi no Koyomi, the Great Fire of Tottori in 1952, which makes the past more site- and time-specific in this manga than in A Distant Neighborhood.

Artistically, Chichi no Koyomi is Taniguchi at the top of his game. Particularly the characters and their facial expressions are spot-on, which is no small feat given the number of characters, most of which appear multiple times at different ages.

However, it should be noted that the German publisher Carlsen didn’t do a particularly good job at flipping the manga so that it now reads left-to-right in this German edition: the speech bubbles and captions are often arranged diagonally in the panel, in which case the reading order is bottom(!)-left to top-right, which is awfully confusing. Furthermore, some panels are mirrored and some are not, resulting in the old problems of right-handed characters becoming left-handed and the like.

That being said, Chichi no Koyomi is a classic Taniguchi manga that one shouldn’t miss. Together with The Walking Man and A Distant Neighborhood, this manga embodies the essence of Taniguchi’s work as a mangaka.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○