Taniguchi, Jiro. The Ice Wanderer. Trans. Shizuka Shimoyama and Elizabeth Tiernan. London: Fanfare, 2008. Summary
: This standalone volume features six short tales by master mangaka Jiro Taniguchi, loosely connected by themes of nostalgia and the wilderness. Comments
: It has long been widely believed, particularly amongst the elder generation that populates the upper echelons of Japan's creative industries, that only those cultural products that might be characterized as mukokuseki
—a.k.a. culturally non-specific—generally succeed when exported to the West. Japanese cartoons are thought to be one of those mukokuseki
product categories, and there is no question that the medium in its modern incarnation, from Tezuka's Tetsuwan Atom
onward, does, whether consciously or unconsciously, downplay its own so-called “Japaneseness.”
Of course, the applicability of this theory in the face of the popularity of anime and manga at the dawn of the 21st century is debatable. Yet mukokuseki
continues to rear its head in the most unlikely of places, and The Ice Wanderer and Other Stories
, as it turns out, is one of them. Though the six stories take place in both the Arctic and Japan and feature both American and Japanese protagonists, the grizzled white prospectors and the grizzled bear hunter look exactly the same, as do the bear hunter's son and the youthful Jack London. The realism of Taniguchi's art makes it possible to examine the characters' features objectively, and the characters, even the ostensibly Japanese ones, are indeed more “Western” than “Asian” in appearance, particularly around the eyes. Yet this Westernization would not even occur to most casual Japanese readers, who would assume that a standard de-Asianized depiction, despite its actual lack of resemblance to themselves, is Japanese. The Jack London of this manga, therefore, from their perspective, actually looks very generically Japanese (of the sincere, young male sort)…which is quite disturbing given that he definitely does not
look remotely Japanese in any of his photographs.
In fact, Taniguchi's two-story homage to Jack London is a deeply disappointing, flawed effort. London was a prolific author who tackled many subjects in his writing over this considerable lifetime, but he persists as a household name the world over for his novels written from the perspective of wolves and sled dogs, The Call of the Wild
and White Fang
. Human characters do not resonate with the same affective power as animals in these works. But Taniguchi appears to be tone-deaf to all this and instead adapts London stories that fetishize Native Americans and their privileged connection to nature while demonizing wolves as desperate, man-eating beasts. It is shameful; Taniguchi is a better writer than that.
And alas, he is not at the height of his powers anywhere else in this volume. Those stories that take place in Japanese settings may please some with their cheap nostalgia and exotic locales, but their plots are thin to non-existent. They simply do not feel like all-out efforts; this is the kind of work that pays the professional mangaka's bills. Still, Taniguchi's art throughout is elegant and finely crafted with detailed, realistic backgrounds as befits the mature (but not adults-only!) audiences of Shougakukan's Big Comic line of seinen manga magazines. Panel layouts are invariably linear and conventional—easy on the eyes for those not accustomed to modern manga's asymmetrical, impressionistic stylings.
The only piece of the lot that feels worth the time to read on its own merit is the final one, “Return to the Sea.” Vague in all of the right ways—the marine biologist protagonist is mukokuseki
in that he is given neither name nor nationality—the story adheres to the majesty and mystery of the giants of the deep and depicts a lovely bond of understanding between human and whale. However, the story is much too short and fails to support the entire book on just its own terms. Despite its weaknesses, fans will most likely appreciate this newest entry into Taniguchi's English-translated oeuvre, but newcomers seeking an entry point into Taniguchi's considerable body of work would be well-advised to start elsewhere, perhaps with one of his multi-volume series. Notes
: paperback, 1st American/UK edition Rating
- Not bad, but not one of Taniguchi's best. At least the print quality and production values are stellar.
::THIS IS AN ADVANCE REVIEW. THE ICE WANDERER
IS SCHEDULED TO SHIP FROM DIAMOND FOR OCTOBER AND SHOULD APPEAR IN BOOKSTORES BY THE END OF THIS YEAR.::