As gifted and versatile as Jiro Taniguchi is, I do find myself ambivalent about some of his work. I can sometimes find it too cerebral (The Times of Botchan), too burly and stoic (The Ice Wanderer), or even too sentimental (A Distant Neighborhood). I always appreciate his comics, particularly for their flawless draftsmanship, but there can be those nagging reactions to tone that keep me from admiring it without reservation.
A Zoo in Winter, Taniguchi’s latest translated offering from Fanfare/Ponent Mon, ends up being one of his titles that ends up working for me without qualification. It starts out a bit on the stoic side, but it ends up being thoughtfully sentimental in just the right way, at least by my standards.
Taniguchi reveals his early days in the manga industry, working as an assistant to a popular shônen artist. When we first meet him, or at least his avatar, Hamaguchi, he’s working in an unsatisfying job at a textile concern, making deliveries and wondering if he’ll ever get a promised chance at design work. An awkward series of events involving the owner’s daughter leads him from Kyoto to Tokyo, where a high-school friend sets him up with a job in a manga-ka’s studio.
Hamaguchi learns the assistant’s trade on the job, finding the workplace dynamics somewhat trickier than he expected. He’s jealous when a co-worker seems to be on the verge of his professional debut, and he’s quietly alarmed by the news that his superior had his shot at a solo career and went back to supporting someone else’s work. Hamaguchi also hits that wall any cartoonist faces: what kinds of stories does he want to tell?
He also gradually starts taking advantage of life in Tokyo. The studio is sort of a wheel-spoke for the kind of weird, low-grade arty types that congregate in cities. Between Kikuchi, the ne’er-do-well friend of Hamaguchi’s manga-ka boss, and his high-school buddy, Hamaguchi begins to develop something resembling a social life. Those two threads intersect when Kikuchi asks Hamaguchi to hang out with his girlfriend’s sickly sister.
The waif ends up inspiring Hamaguchi merely by expressing an interest in what happens next in one of Hamaguchi’s half-formed stories. His fondness for the girl (and probably the ego boost her admiration provides) prompts Hamaguchi to take his own work more seriously. After a rather clinical starting point, the narrative goes to some shamelessly romantic places, and I’m surprised at how well it works. There are few things quite as clichéd as the sickly inspiring the hale to make the most of their lives, but Taniguchi pulls it off by acknowledging that this is what’s happening but keeping his protagonist sweetly in the dark about what a stereotype he’s executing. It ends up being lovely rather than gooey, though the gooey mien gives it all an extra something. Taniguchi gets to frost his cake and eat it, too.
As a tale of a young artist, A Zoo in Winter is generally understated, which is a blessing. Taniguchi is in his best kind of thoughtful, restrained mode with this material, which results in some very astute observations about the hothouse quality of artists in collaboration. I think that restraint and understatement also give Taniguchi license to tug at the heartstrings a bit more than otherwise might be palatable. It strikes a very nice balance overall, and it’s certainly among my favorites of Taniguchi’s licensed works.