Young Taiwan mangaka evokes nostalgia for ’70s Japanese pop music

© Gao Yan / KADOKAWA
The cover of the first volume of “Midori no Uta: Shushu Gunpu” (“The Song About Green: Gather the Wind”)

Midori no Uta: Shushu Gunpu (The Song About Green: Gather the Wind)
by Gao Yan (Kadokawa)

Taiwan manga artists possess an amazing ability to draw. Japan became aware of this fact first through Chen Uen, whose “Toshu Eiyuden” (“Heroes of the East Chou Dynasty”) became a big hit here in the 1990s. His dynamic brushwork, which incorporated the traditions of ink painting, is both fluid and innovative, and many Japanese mangaka were greatly influenced by him. Regrettably, he passed away in 2017.

After Chen, Taiwan mangaka seldom made headlines in Japan, but a major newcomer has finally emerged: Gao Yan, 26. Her debut manga, “Midori no Uta: Shushu Gunpu” (“The Song About Green: Gather the Wind”), which was serialized in a Japanese manga magazine, became the first manga ever to be published in book form in Japan and Taiwan at the same time.

The manga follows Lyu, a girl living in a Taipei suburb. She skips high school class and goes to a beach, where she experiences something strange. A Japanese song she’s never heard before plays through her smartphone’s earbuds while a man cries on a distant reef. The song is “Kaze o Atsumete” (Gather the wind) by the 1970s Japanese rock band Happy End. For some reason, the song makes Lyu feel nostalgic, and she decides to go to Japan in search of the album on which the song was released. At the same time, she also starts having a subtle love affair with a young man who is older than herself and plays in a band.

Nothing particularly dramatic happens in the manga, which at heart is a quiet coming-of-age story. But Gao’s artistic skills are remarkable. Every panel is like a painting, both realistic and lyrical. Subtle changes in Lyu’s expressions keep readers interested. If you recognize the art, you must be an avid Haruki Murakami fan. Two years ago, Gao was chosen to provide illustrations for the cover and text of Murakami’s book-form essay, “ Neko o Suteru: Chichioya ni tsuite Kataru Toki” (“Abandoning a Cat: Memories of my Father”). Murakami wrote that he felt a “strange nostalgia” for Gao’s drawings.

In August, I had an opportunity to interview Gao in person.

“I’ve loved Japanese anime and manga since I was a child, and I always wanted to draw manga in Japan someday,” she told me.

The impression one gets on meeting her is amazingly similar to the impression Lyu creates in the manga. Gao also acknowledged that the storyline of “The Song About Green” is mostly about her real-life experiences.

For me, at my age, I can literally feel nostalgic about the 1970s, but Gao was born after the decade ended. So I asked her why she could feel nostalgic about it.

“Young people have not changed greatly between now and then. We live in the present, but we can also relive the past through movies, novels and music from earlier times,” was her clear-cut reply. She said she is a big fan of Murakami as well as the musician Haruomi Hosono, who was a member of Happy End. Both of them are in their 70s. This somehow gives me courage.

Taiwan’s manga industry has long been dominated by translations of Japanese manga, but in recent years the Taiwan authorities have been working to promote the country’s own manga, and they have even subsidized translations. However, Gao says: “I don’t want to rely on those things. I want to do it on my own, in my own capacity.” Her strong will and determination show us a glimpse of how big she could become in the future. She plans to stay in Japan on a working visa for the next three years. I eagerly await her next work, which she will draw for a Japanese magazine.