Monday, May 7, 2012

A Zoo In Winter

A Zoo In Winter is the first Jiro Taniguchi manga I have had the pleasure to read, and what a pleasure it was. I discovered Jiro Taniguchi, and this book, through the March 2012 Manga Moveable Feast, which his works were the subject of. My To-Read-List overflowed with every English licensed Taniguchi work that month, but A Zoo In Winter seemed the perfect place to start, being a single volume, full length story with rave reviews.

This slice-of-life story, that I feel must be partly based on real life experiences of Taniguchi, tells of Mitsuo Hamaguchi and his journey to become a mangaka. At the beginning of the story, Hamaguchi is working at a textile company in hopes of being a designer. Not getting to do the designing job he wants, Hamaguchi spends most of his free time at the zoo, sketching solemnly, until an incident at work gives him the push he needs to move on. The next phase in Hamaguchi's takes him to Tokyo, where he is abruptly tossed into the world of manga, becoming an assistant to a popular mangaka and honing his craft. In the events that follow, Hamaguchi's experiences in love and life lead him through ups and downs that ultimately shape him as a man.

At first, I thought Taniguchi's artwork was a little stiff, but I quickly grew to love the style(I had a similar experience with Naoki Urasawa's artwork). Character's faces are thoughtful and expressive, telling the story as much as the dialogue. Backgrounds are detailed and realistic. It's a wonderful art experience that really helps the story flow along smoothly and naturally.

Character interactions were a strong point with me in this manga. Hamaguchi, quiet and reserved, makes for a great main character because he doesn't overshadow the interesting folks that he meets. And Taniguchi's masterful writing shows when he builds one of the sweetest romances I have encountered in manga, believably and naturally, in around 20 pages. This is where the story grabbed me emotionally especially.

Hamaguchi's personal experiences over the two or so years that we follow him aren't especially exciting or melodramatic. They are realistic experiences that you or I could easily have. So why is it that I engrossed in this book, not being able to stop turning the pages, and had to fight back tears of emotion? I think that's exactly why. Realism. These very human and down-to-earth experiences are something we are able to connect to in a much deeper way than unrelatable melodrama designed for quick and forgettable, pure entertainment. For this, I am grateful that Jiro Taniguchi decided to share this story with us.

Published in a sturdy, 9.5" x 6.8" hardcover with heavy pages by Fanfare Ponent Mon, this book not only looks good on your shelf, but it will last longer too. I have purchased several hardback manga books now, and I have to say, I really appreciate the extra level of quality it brings. Maybe it is just an illusion that the hardback makes my lowly comic books look like dignified, "real" books, or maybe it just strengthens my faith that publishers are still willing to put money and effort into the ever more turbulent manga industry. Either way, this book is a real treasure that I am proud to add to my collection. I know I will be reading this book many more times, and I highly recommend it.

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