Over the past three years, I have come to admire the work of Jiro Taniguchi. Through The Quest for the Missing Girl and A Distant Neighborhood, I have come to appreciate Taniguchi’s masterful draftmanship, his unique stories, and his strength as both a writer and a cartoonist. Of all his great qualities throughout books adapted by Fanfare/Ponent Mon, I have noticed one key feature, one slight detriment to his impressive works: Taniguchi has a difficulty creating people. His characters are impressively constructed, but like the craggy cliffs and towering skyscrapers he so ornately crafts, they are inscrutable. It is hard to understand their emotions, and their faces are mask-like in quality. And while the beauties of the scene that surround each character are readily apparent, the beauties of the characters themselves are often hidden behind a wall.
In A Zoo in Winter, Taniguchi sets his sights on himself – and thereby, other people. The focus he puts into drawing the emotions of his characters is equal if not greater than the usual care he devotes to mountains and background bustle of a living city. You can’t tell a memoir (or as close to it as Taniguchi is going to get) without talking about other people, and this is a welcome change for Taniguchi. The book is a de-masking of sorts, and the end result is captivating.
The main character, Hamaguchi, works at a textiles manufacturing company, harboring future dreams of designing custom textiles and being an artist. He spends his time alone, or, when forced, with the daughter of his boss, taking her on excursions. He unwittingly aids and abets her elopement, which causes him to eventually quit his job. After leaving the textile manufacturer, he moves to Tokyo. From there, he takes on a job as a mangaka’s assistant, and becomes part Japan’s comic trade.
We see Hamaguchi struggle with his past – his interaction with his older brother is especially telling, since Hamaguchi is unwilling to believe that he and the old world of his family could ever be able to connect. His brother, 10 years his senior, descends from what seems like on-high to this 18 year-old artist, and becomes, for a moment, a benevolent, nonjudgmental force in Hamaguchi’s life. This moment of A Zoo in Winter is especially interesting, because it forces Hamaguchi to develop as a person. He is forced to reconcile his past with his present, and in the end, proves to his brother that what he is doing is something he loves to do. His brother, for his own part, is trying to care for both mother and brother, and in a way that hurts neither of them. It is a well-crafted moment.
As Hamaguchi stumbles from one project to the next under a major mangaka, he is introduced to other aspiring writers, call girls, bar matrons, and revolutionary folk-singers, all of whom redefine the world of Hamaguchi. At points, he loses track of his world and becomes a part of dive bars and nightclubs, full of alcohol and vigor. As he recovers from his poor behavior, he learns the hard way that people are complicated, sometimes broken things.
Hamaguchi’s relationship with his art is a fickle thing. At times he seems divinely inspired, and at other times, is found staring at walls, completely stymied. The newfound manga career of Hamaguchi seems to be at a standstill for quite a bit of time – Taniguchi assures us that this introduction to manga is not a brilliant adventure (like the pages of Bakuman might suggest), but a slow, bumbling journey. Finally, Hamaguchi finds purpose and love in a brilliant mind and a pair of frail arms. His budding relationship and his often child-like behavior when things don’t go his way are very true to life, and so appropriate for his age. He is immature and naive, but still tries to bring his best to the drawing table, and to his relationship with Mari. Together, he and his muse devise a story that can make it to the pages of “Shonen Holiday,” and through her kind and gentle persuasion, he is able to find himself as an artist.
The story of Hamaguchi may be a semi-autobiographical account of Taniguchi and his beginnings as a mangaka, but it delves into the mind and heart, expressing the strength and creativity of the human spirit in its relationship to love. Along the way, A Zoo in Winter tells us that we must not be afraid to humble ourselves, find ourselves, and live with ourselves. More importantly, it teaches us that we must find the courage to and conviction to live with others.
A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher. A Zoo in Winter makes its international debut at San Diego Comic-Con, July 21st-24th.