Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators is a high-concept book, and one that works. Nine French comics creators were invited to visit Japan, where they would write and draw short stories about (or inspired by) the cities or towns they visited. They would be joined by eight creators living in Japan (seven Japanese natives, plus editor and French expat Frédéric Boilet), who would craft tales focused on where they lived. The work was sponsored by two French and Japanese arts organizations and the book was pre-sold for editions in seven languages before a single pen stroke was put to paper. The result is one of the strongest comics anthologies in recent years.
The book's 16 stories (only one is a collaboration) are presented in geographical order, starting at Japan's southernmost tip. They then go northward, area by area, stopping at Tokyo for about a third of the collection, before trekking further northward.
We start on the westernmost coast of Japan, in the village of Amakua, with a story by Japan's Kan Takahama. It's a delightful entry to the book, a combination travelogue, ghost story and love story, told in detailed gray tones with a marvelous sense of place. It's not a plot-driven story, but it's a nice little anecdote which helps set the tone for the stories to come.
Next up is David Prudhomme, who visited Fukuoka, the traditional gateway to Japan for Western visitors. Prudhomme lets his shoes come alive and show us the town and its citizens, wildlife, art and coastal waters. Weirdly enjoyable.
Jiro Taniguchi gives us a story of unrequited love, told in detailed, precise, classic manga-style artwork. It's one of the saddest stories in the book, and one of the most beautiful.
From Taniguchi's precision we go to Aurélia Aurita, who works in an incredibly sketchy style, a combination of pencil and ink that leaves some panels barely sketched. She brings both a sense of humor and a charged eroticism to the book that sets this story apart.
François Schuiten and Benoit Peeters turn in a story about Osaka that is more fantasy than reality. A combination of text, pictures and a small amount of sequential art, this is the most fanciful story in the the book, as well as one of its most visually striking.
Emmanuel Guilbert also sticks with a text-and-pictures format for the next story, inspired by the legends and history of Kyoto. Each page is a slightly different style, mostly told with broad brush strokes. It's not comics, but it's worth reading.
Nicolas De Crécy s another artist with a sketchy style, this one loose renderings in a fine-tipped pen. It's one of the most straight-forward tales in the book, looking at the “New Gods” that Western marketing have brought to Nagoya.
The next tale is by Taiyo Matsumoto, who presents to us a legend straight out of Kanagawa. All told in full-page pictures, it's a wonderful story full of magic and more than a little sadness.
The next several tales are all set in Tokyo. Joann Sfar lets his French friend Waterloo give him a tour of the city and its culture as seen through his Western lens. The Japanese artist known as Little Fish presents a surreal story of a man with a sunflower growing out of his navel. Moyoko Anno gives us a very short piece about a young girl in ancient Japan buying a pet cricket. And editor Boilet give us an erotic story about garbage and how confusing it is getting rid of your trash in Tokyo.
The next tale, Fabrice Neaud's “The City of Trees,” is a wonderfully drawn travelogue of the city of Sendai. Tragically, most of what Neaud depicts may no longer be there, since this so much of this marvelous city was destroyed by this year's earthquake and tsunami. Read this story and weep for what has been lost.
From the realistic to the magical, “The Festival of the Bell-Horses” by Daisuke Igarashi is one of the more rural stories in this book, presented through the eyes of a child as he falls asleep and dreams during a parade.
“In the Deep Forest” by Kazuichi Hanawa is one of the hardest stories in the book to describe. I guess you'd say it's a Buddhist look at nature, with a little bit of horror and dread thrown in for good measure.
Finally we come to the Northernmost and final story in the book, “Sapporo Fiction” by Étienne Davodeau. It's another more literal travel story, this time capturing the awe and majesty of Mt. Showa-Shinzan. In the process, it captures the awe that most of the book's creators felt about Japan, and serves as a nice way to finish off the volume.
Even with the strengths of this book (there's not a bad story to be found), there are a few minor quibbles. Perhaps as a result of cross-continental translations, a few of the text blocks have missing characters (particularly apostrophes, which disappear frequently). In addition, a couple of the stories some digital remnants from bad scanning, and much of the lettering has faint gray echoes of each letter printed just out of synch with the black, which is a bit distracting. But those are all minor printing and production issues. The book itself is a great read, and a great addition to any library.
Reviewed by John R. Platt on July 9, 2012