On the Passing of Master Manga-ka Jiro Taniguchi…

Jiro Taniguchi, whose manga celebrated the beauty of everyday life and the majesty of the highest mountains, has died at the age of 69.

Taniguchi is best known in Japan as the artist for the series Kodoku no Gourmet, a celebration of street food as seen through the eyes of a traveling salesman; it was adapted into a television series that has run for five seasons so far. Outside Japan, he first gained fame for the single-volume The Walking Man, which follows a middle-aged man on a series of walks through different neighborhoods in his town. While that manga has a Zen-like quality, Taniguchi has also authored a number of adventure manga, many set in the world of mountains and mountaineers, including a five-volume adaptation of Baku Yumemakura’s novel The Summit of the Gods.

In addition to his remarkable body of work, Taniguchi is known for crossing borders. The Walking Man, first published in English in 2006, was popular with adult readers, although it was hard to find for many years. The English-language edition was published in left-to-right format, which made it more accessible to non-manga fans, and the subject matter and clear-lined style added to its appeal.

It was in France, however, where Taniguchi really crossed over. He was influenced by the work of French creators such as Enki Bilal and Mœbius (Jean Giraud), and his work fits easily with the style known as ligne claire (clear lines) pioneered by Tintin creator Hergé. Whether drawing a mountain or the interior of a cluttered city apartment, Taniguchi applied a similar style, linear and detailed, with restrained use of flat screentones. His expressive ink line does most of the work, conveying emotion and picking out fine details while always maintaining a sense of three-dimensional space within the panel. In particular, Taniguchi masterfully depicted facial expressions with a strict economy of line, using the slant of an eyebrow or the contour of the lips to convey emotion without any shading.

That influence was reciprocated by the Nouvelle Manga school, a loose group of French and Japanese creators who focused on everyday life rather than genre tales. French creator Frederic Boilet summarized the movement in his Nouvelle Manga Manifesto and bore it out in a number of works, including Tokyo j My Garden, a collaboration between Boilet, Benoit Peeters, and Taniguchi. Taniguchi also teamed up with Mœbius for the graphic novel Icaro. The French government named him a chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2011, and in the English-speaking world, his work was nominated for both Eisner and Ignatz awards.

Much of Taniguchi’s work is available in English, and since many of his works are one-shots or short series, it’s easy to get acquainted with his manga—or to revisit it. Here’s a selection of favorites.

The Times of Botchan
Taniguchi’s earliest work available widely in English, The Times of Botchan is an adaptation of Natsume Soseki’s semi-autobiographical novel Botchan, which tells the story of the changes that Japan was going through as it opened up to Western influences in the late 19th and early 20th century as seen through the eyes of the title character, a teacher. It is a classic in Japan, and four of the ten volumes of Taniguchi’s adaptation have been translated into English.

The Walking Man
Taniguchi’s best known manga in English, The Walking Man is a series of short stories about a pudgy, middle-aged man who goes for walks around his neighborhood. He has little adventures—he climbs a tree to retrieve a toy airplane, he skinny-dips in the local pool after hours—but most of the time, the reader is simply walking along with him, enjoying the scenery. It’s a book best read a chapter or two at a time, all the better to savor the experience—and Taniguchi’s exquisitely rendered urban landscapes.

The Ice Wanderer and Other Stories
My personal favorite among Taniguchi’s works, this is a collection of short stories about humans and nature. The title story is about the writer Jack London’s encounter with an old Chilkoot hunter during his early days in the Klondike; another pits a man against a bear. Each story highlights Taniguchi’s love of depicting the natural world.

The Summit of the Gods
This five-volume adaptation of Yumemakura Baku’s same-titled novel starts with a Japanese photographer finding an old camera in a store in Nepal. Speculating that it was the camera that explorer George Mallory carried on his third expedition to the top of Mount Everest—from which he never returned—the photographer begins a quest to discover whether Mallory and his climbing partner actually reached the peak before they died.

The Quest for the Missing Girl
This police procedural features a different type of struggle—man versus teenage girl, man versus urban landscape. Shiga, a rugged mountaineer, descends to the city to help track down Megumi, the daughter of his best friend. He winds up in Shibuya, an obvious outsider in the nightclubs and karaoke bars, but there’s more to this story than a good girl gone bad: Megumi’s father disappeared on an expedition years before, and Shiga still carries the burden of his feelings about his friend at the time—and the feelings he still has for Megumi’s mother. The story moves at a deliberate pace, as Shiga slowly unwinds the mystery of Megumi’s whereabouts, before plunging into a heart-stopping climax.

A Distant Neighborhood
Another atmospheric tale, A Distant Neighborhood tells the story of a middle-aged salaryman heading home to Tokyo after a business trip who instead ends up in the town where he grew up. Back in familiar surroundings, he relives the events of his life at 14 and possibly changes the future by reinventing the past.

A Zoo in Winter
Taniguchi travels back to his own past in A Zoo in Winter, based on his experiences first as a fabric designer, then as a manga assistant in Tokyo. Several stories are interwoven into the narrative—about the rebellious daughter of his first boss, the ambitions and frustrations of his fellow manga creators, and an enigmatic, sickly girl—but it’s basically a slice-of-life manga about a really interesting life.

Guardians of the Louvre
Taniguchi’s most recent manga available in English, this graphic novel was created as part of a series of works commissioned by the Louvre museum. A Japanese artist falls ill while visiting Paris and takes a hallucinatory tour of the Louvre, talking to painters and paintings and experiencing the museum on a whole new level. While the themes and artwork will be familiar to Taniguchi fans, this book presents them in a new way: as a full-color, large format graphic novel similar to French BDs, rather than a standard manga format.

Jiro Taniguchi, 1947-2017.

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