I have noticed since I was a teenager, the disparity between man and nature. Man, overcomes nature through force of willpower. Nature, seemingly, has no comeback most of the time. But when it’s a man or men against nature, then the story is different. It’s in these situations that humanity, in its little oases of “civilization”, finds out how little it knows and also how pitiable its attempts to fight back are. After reading The Walking Man, I was delighted to discover more of Taniguchi’s work, this time taking place in the realm of nature rather than an urban environment. While the main title is its lead story, the book contains more tales to enthrall.
With a timeline narrative that jump over 120 years and crosses oceans a number of times, there’s no connection between the characters, save a connection to nature. Also, if you’re looking for action then I can’t recommend this. While there are thrilling moments in the book, it’s not continuous therefore you know upfront. It’s more to do with the character’s connection to their environment. I think the same could be said for the overall arching theme of the book rather than my previous “Man Versus Nature!” statement. First and foremost, Taniguchi presents us with life in the Klondike region of Canada during the Great “Goldrush” and all the foolishness that inspired. Jack London, yes the Jack London of Call of the Wild and White Fang fame, is with three of his friends trying to strike it rich when, on a hunting trip for food, he and one of his comrades come across a native American who through his own trek in the wilderness, causes London to think about what is he really doing here panning for gold. Springboarding from that we jump to Alaska in the same time period, with two men’s perilous trek across the Yukon in a kind of survivalist “Cremation of Sam McGee”. Next we go to early Showa Period (1926–89) Japan for a man’s need to avenge his son’s death at the hands of a wily predator and then move to the middle of the Showa period for a young boy’s formative summer as an adolescent in a Japanese fishing village. Rounding it off are two tales, one set in 60’s era Japan with a young man’s cautionary quest to complete his manga while staying at a strange and quirky halfway house. and finally an amazing story of one oceanographer’s fable to witness his aquatic friends death.
With all these stories and timeframes, it would be easy to get lost but Taniguchi doesn’t confuse me with open-ended stories or having characters to personally connect with one another. Here, in its essence, is simply a collection where the people in it are either fought with, helped by or are saved by unseen forces they cannot understands not control. This goes back to my assertion that once outside of their comfort zone man can only go with nature or get beaten by it. The stories set in the mountains, The Ice Wanderer and Our Mountains are classic tales of men desperate to stand on their feet while the mountains or its inhabitants close in around them. I really do begin to see at around the same pace as Jack does how ill-equipped he and his friends are. In the other mentioned chapter, Master Gunpuchi tries to forget how the mountains cruelly punished him but he realises that what he face those years ago still waits for him in his dreams and his reality. The cost is high for him personally but I love the ending nevertheless. In White Wilderness, it’s a straight horror story with elements of supernaturalism to it. Why are the two men and the corpse they are transporting being hunted? Why them alone? Why are the creatures so unafraid of them with the flames, guns and shouts? Lovely, taunt piece with few real answers. Shokaro is a weird story with, and I’ll admit it, no real point to it. Is a ghost story, about a haunted apartment house? Or an observational, self-referencing piece about a budding mangaka observing his fellow boarders? Again, I cannot because it refuses to be one or the other. But damn, if it isn’t compelling to read. Finally, Kaiyose-Jima is a lovely piece about a young boy’s loss of the trappings of his childhood, his first steps into adolescence and the foundation of true love.
I really like all of the stories even if I don’t understand what some of them are doing in here. The stoic, totality of the wild on every continent shown is startling. The way Taniguchi conveys the wind whipping around people’s hair every time I read Ice Wanderer is a great feeling and the sheer silence that pervades White Wilderness is eerie. I read them, knowing I don’t have to experience the peril and danger. This reminds me of my childhood reading stories like Call of the Wild or Under the Hawthorne Bush where I was thrilled by the tension, adventure and the atmosphere. Taniguchi shows us glimpses of places in the world where we walk but don’t want to stay. The only two characters who want to stay where they are are the Native American who waits behind his tribe and the whale researcher in Return to the Sea. Everyone else is forced to return home or has a reason to go home. There is a small proviso against that last statement that arises in Kaiyose-Jima but I can’t state what that is without going into the plot. The cast all have their reasons for being where they are. It’s not so much about them finding their place so much as it is them knowing where their place is.
As always, Taniguchi’s lines are precise, delicate and detailed. There is a timelessness that I think generations will be able to appreciate for years to come. Whether it’s mountains, bears, boats, holy men or whales all these things are to be found. I have serious doubts that Taniguchi’s work will ever top the Amazon best sellers lists but as long as we keep reading, buying and cheering every time he wins an award in Japan or France and heaven forbid if he should ever win the Eisner Award, I think that high sales should not matter.
This is my second official entry for the Jiro Taniguchi Movable Manga Feast for the month of March 2012. More details and a list of all written pieces of the Taniguchi MMF can be found here.