Poetic scenery a hallmark of late mangaka Jiro Taniguchi’s work

The image that appeared on the cover of the Japanese edition of “The Walking Man” by Jiro Taniguchi

The cover of manga creator Jiro Taniguchi’s “Aruku Hito” (“The Walking Man”) depicts the comic book’s middle-aged protagonist walking in a rural neighborhood with an almost labyrinth-like network of paths.

When the comic was being serialized, Taniguchi lived in the Tokyo suburb of Kiyose, and many locations in the area appear in the manga. However, the bucolic idyll depicted in the cover image looks nothing like the nondescript suburb Taniguchi called home.

“The houses and people are not drawn to scale. It’s a strange picture that in no way depicts a real landscape,” said Shinya Yonezawa of Furari, the company that manages the copyright of the late mangaka. “The world of ‘The Walking Man,’ in which the landscape is the main character, is expressed in this single image,” Yonezawa, 66, said.

Hailing from Tottori, Taniguchi (1947-2017) debuted in around 1975, when his first comics were published in a manga magazine. He was jointly awarded the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize for “The Times of Botchan.” He also won awards at Angouleme International Comics Festival in France for “A Journal of My Father,” “A Distant Neighborhood” and “The Summit of the Gods.” Taniguchi released more than 150 comics, which have been published in about 20 countries and regions around the world.

The original image that appeared on the first page of “The Times of Botchan,” which was written by Natsuo Sekikawa and illustrated by Taniguchi.

Serialized in a manga magazine from 1990 to 1991, “The Walking Man” was a turning point for Taniguchi. He would take walks in his neighborhood and create illustrations of the local scenery in which he would include his alter ego, the comic’s main character. While observing the changing of the seasons in the unremarkable town, the protagonist recalls the small joys and discoveries of everyday life.

French artist Jean Giraud — also known as Moebius — praised the “poetic” nature of the manga, which has been likened to films by the acclaimed director Yasujiro Ozu.

Before “The Walking Man” was published, Taniguchi often collaborated with writers, including Natsuo Sekikawa, with whom he published several titles from 1977 onward.

Taniguchi gradually broke away from the dramatic style common in the youth-oriented manga of the 1970s, according to Sekikawa, 72. “He changed by attempting more adventurous forms of manga expression,” Sekikawa said.

Courtesy of Thibaud Desbief
Jiro Taniguchi in Paris in 2006

The transformation in his style was most noticeable in “The Times of Botchan” (1987-96), a five-part series featuring literary figures and ideas of the Meiji era (1868-1912). The first episode starts with an image of a bird’s-eye view of rooftops, rather than the protagonist, author Soseki Natsume.

“It was a bold shift that was absent from contemporaneous manga, which tended to focus on people and movement,” Sekikawa said. “I think this picture was the precursor to the cover of “The Walking Man.”

Taniguchi lets the landscape speak for itself in “The Walking Man,” a manga that mastered the art of crafting drama from the minutiae of daily life.

The Tottori native started to gain recognition for the comics that followed it, such as “Inu o Kau” (Raising a dog), based on his experience of caring for an old dog, and stories set in his hometown.

“Solitary Gourmet,” written by Masayuki Qusumi, was arguably his biggest hit, featuring a quintessential Taniguchi protagonist who travels around Japan sampling different kinds of cuisine along the way.

He made the illustration that appears on the cover of the Japanese edition of “The Walking Man” specifically for the book that was published after the serialization of the manga, creating a rough sketch, drafting the figures and doing the coloring, but leaving the delicate line drawings up to illustrator Tadahiro Uesugi, who was Taniguchi’s assistant at the time.

“We spent more than a week combining several photos to create a wide-angle image, but I have no idea exactly where the photos were taken,” Uesugi, 56, said.

So it appears to be a landscape that does not exist after all. And yet it also seems to be a place that we might recall having seen somewhere before.

Taniguchi writes in a section of the book: “I’m sure ‘The Walking Man’ will remind us of something nostalgic that we have long forgotten. Why not go for a short walk? And be sure to take your time.”

Bridges with ‘bande dessinee’

Last August, a bookstore that looks like it has been plucked from a street corner in Paris opened in Tokyo’s Kita Ward. Specializing in French art books, Maison Petit Renard also sells manga from French-speaking countries, which are widely known by the French term bande dessinee.

France-born translator Thibaud Desbief, 49, and his wife, Shiyori, 46, said they wanted to introduce people in Japan to French-language comics, which are typically large-format color books renowned for their artistic creativity. Books by Taniguchi can also be found in the store.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Shiyori and Thibaud Desbief pose with books at the Maison Petit Renard bookstore in Kita Ward, Tokyo.

“Taniguchi’s popularity in France is incredible. But rather than being thought of as a Japanese mangaka, French readers view him as a creator of bande dessinee,” Thibaud said.

Most of Taniguchi’s major releases have been translated into French, starting with “The Walking Man.” Taniguchi has also worked on comics based on French scripts and projects, such as “Mon annee” (My year), which was originally a novel by Jean David Morvan.

His popularity in France may have something to do with his familiarity with French comics. Taniguchi had loved reading bande dessinee since the start of his career and has cited the French artist who goes by the pseudonym Moebius as a major influence.

“Mr. Taniguchi looked forward to shopping for French comics in Paris,” said Thibaud, who accompanied him during a trip to France in 2006. “He was so well-known that people would ask him for his autograph in bookstores, which he couldn’t get his head around.”

Through his drawings, the renowned mangaka has served as a bridge between Japan and France.