This cross-cultural anthology is something of a gem. Imagine this for a dream assignment: Hello (insert your name here) how would you like to come to Japan to work on an anthology comic with sixteen other talented artists from Japan and France? Oh, and we'll pay all your travel and accommodation expenses too. As my flatmate sometimes says, 'I would sell my mother to the Arabs' for an opportunity like this. So what better way to live out your fantasies vicariously then by buying this anthology which features the cream of the crop when it comes to both the French and the Japanese alternative comic gene pool. This isn't a straight love letter to Japan, it's an anthology about culture shock, tradition, mythology, commercialism, and prejudice to name but a few things.
The connection between France and Japan is that France's love of comics meant that they embraced Manga with open arms meaning that France itself has a quite successful and extremely diverse Manga market. Perhaps because of the French's belief in comics as an art form, more niche forms of Manga such as adult/dramatic Manga, and avant-garde Manga are much more popular there. The French editor of this anthology, Frederic Boilet, fell in love with Japan so much that he moved there in 1993 and has been there ever since.
The first great thing about this anthology is that it gives you the chance to read a lot of work by artists (particularly the French ones) who it is usually very difficult, or very expensive, to get any of their work in English. I'm thinking of Fabrice Neaud who I've wanted to read ever since I glimpsed a snippet of his work in Ann Miller's Reading Bande Dessinee, Nicolas de Crecy, Francois Shuiten & Benoit Peeters, and Joann Sfar's journal comics.
Each artist is sent to a different host city (chosen at random by the French Institute in Japan) and asked to write a story about the area. This story can be fact or fiction and although a lot of the artists tend to stick to a personal travelogue approach we are also treated to history, myth, fantasy, and science-fiction along the way. As with the best anthologies there is a huge array of visual styles here. Perhaps the most traditionally 'Manga-like' artist (despite his adult themes) is Jiro Taniguchi, although elsewhere we do get to see manga's influence on the French artists, as in Aurelia Aurita's use of Manga style emotive iconography. Nicolas de Cercy's story is drawn in a style which manages to be frantic and scribbled yet at the same time clear, playfully explores the outlandish graphic design of Japanese products and presents us with a pretty satisfying twist to the story which will make you smile. Another highlight from the French quarter is Shuiten and Peeter's story-come-tourist brochure which showcases futuristic architecture, dizzying perspective, and a loving nod to the Japanese love of giant B movie insects. Out of the Japanese artists my favourite stories would have to be by Daisuke Igarashi who manages to combine fast paced action (being careful not to make his motion likes OTT like a lot of mainstream Manga artists) with unsettling surrealism, and alternative Manga golden boy Taiyo Matsumoto's(*1) traditional style folktale which evokes very early Manga and Eastern art while style maintaining his own idiosyncratic style. The use of single page panels also gives it the feel of a very Zen children's picture book.
It is Fabrice Neaud's entry to this anthology however that gives us the most scathing critique of Japanese culture. I read somewhere that Neud's journals are very clever because they manage to channel his personal experiences into a kind of mirror to society, his journal's although personal, are somehow political. In this entry it is Neaud's identity as a gay man that brings him to question the attitude towards homosexuality in the East. In his quest, the homosexual Asians are an invisible people, and although prejudice is not spoken of but it is clearly there. The topic of homosexuality comes up again briefly in Sfarr's journal entry when he sees what he thinks is an advert for a gay magazine in the Tokyo subway, only to find that it is in fact advertising porn manga for girls (apparently the gay male is a big female fantasy over there).
All in all this anthology is not just a reflection of the weird and wonderful Japan we hold up as alien to our own culture (love hotels, Harajuko girls, girl's underwear in vending machines) but of a very personal Japan to each artist. Do the artists in this anthology suffer from their own bouts of Orientalism or are they cynical and aware? I think capturing the excitement of being in a new culture and a new environment is an important thing and if an artist is successful in their storytelling we can feel this with them, and then later on their disappointments, their laughter, is also ours.
When I went to Tokyo three years ago I bought into the stereotype that Japanese people will often feign ignorance because they don't want to be asked questions by Westerners(*2), in this anthologies last story we meet a Japanese man who proves me wrong, warmly welcoming the French artist and showing him the sights, yet having a strange spirituality, an affinity with nature that gives this anthology a poignant and punchy end.
(*1) Author/artist of Go Go Monster, No 5, Blue Springs, and most famously Tekkon Kinkreet: Black and White
(*2) I since felt stupid, realising that most people on the tube in London don't exactly talk to one another.