Most weeks I have everything planned well in advance: this is how I have been able to subject you, dear reader, to long series on arcane topics in which you flatter me by periodically feigning interest. Some weeks, like this one, I’m at a loss for quite some time, bandying back and forth a number of equally atrocious ideas. It was suggested to me to write about Miyazaki again (re: my recent bomb of a talk), but since I’ve written about the big M in the not-so-distant past, I knew I would get bored quickly and find the actual writing of such a post rather grueling.
Scrambling to write about something, contrary to what you might believe, is actually an invigorating activity for me, for those are the moments when, in trying to keep on top of all the idiosyncrasies of the manga universe, I tend to stumble upon things I previously knew nothing about but which instantly fascinate me. So, earlier this week, I was wandering through the comic section of my public library looking for something to casually read, all the while trying to keep the rapid fire oratory of a newly christened three-year-old somewhere below a dull roar. I picked up the volume Japan as viewed by 17 creators solely because Anno Moyoko‘s name was listed on the cover. Most of the Japanese and French artists were unknown to me, with the notable exceptions of Joann Sfar and Taniguchi Jiro, but I liked the idea of a “perspectives of Japan” book that included both Japanese and (as I later discovered) French artists. The blurb on the inside cover describes it as “[e]ight stories from nine European [read: French] authors… in which all the exoticism [!] of this elusive and mysterious country [barf] is depicted with imagination, humor and poetry. As if in response to these impressions of the artist-travelers, eight authors from the Archipelago [sic] portray their Japan, the everyday one, that of modernity and that of legend.”
In the history of exoticizing Japan, proud efforts have been on display by authors from a number of countries and cultural backgrounds, but the French are easily the all time grand champions. They literally invented japonisme, and it is from France that an appreciation for Japanese wares, arts, and literature emanated throughout Europe in the period following the end of the sakoku policy of limited contact with nations outside Japan. It’s not really surprising, then, to see this volume brazenly admit to its penchant for the exotic, while counterbalancing it with “native perspectives,” limited though they be.
La Nouvelle Manga
In the author’s bio before each story, I kept encountering again and again a peculiar phrase with which I was completely unfamiliar: la nouvelle manga. For instance, “[i]n 2002 [Takahama] connected with the Nouvelle Manga movement and created Mariko Parade (which has been translated into four languages) in which her crisp and expressive artwork meets the realism of Frédéric Boilet’s sketches.” A movement? An entire movement with its own manifesto? How come I had never heard of this? Was I just not paying attention? The simple answer is, insofar as the Nouvelle Manga is a phenomenon at all, that it is largely limited to Europe. The primary publisher associated with this movement is a Spanish one (Ponent Mon), and, seeing as this whole thing seems to have coalesced while I was living in Japan, I get the sense that it’s not terribly well known there either. I could be wrong about this, and I’ve been asking around to see if any of my J-peeps know of this movement’s existence, but until I hear back, I have to assume that this is a creature solely of manga/bd overlap.
This assertion of a distinctly Franco-Japanese dynamic is made rather clear by Boilet’s manifesto. “Japanese comics attach particular importance to story (to its scale, to the variety of its topics) and especially to narration (to its fluidity, to the techniques it uses to suggest sensations and feelings). In Japan, a mangaka is someone who wants, above all, to tell stories, as opposed to those authors of bandes dessinées ‘BDs’ in France who generally become comic book artists through an interest in drawing.” If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written, you can imagine, dear reader, the several ways in which I might quibble with the above claim, but that’s not my interest here. I’d much rather think about how the volume Boilet contributes to and for whose very existence he is responsible represents a very different kind of relationship to the comics of Japan than, say, OEL (Original English Language) manga. English manga, particularly those produced within the US and UK, are marked by a twofold sense of detachment, from the Japanese market itself (in which OEL manga have no particular stake) and from their native comics traditions that, especially in the American case, it means to supplement. Non-Japanese (NJ) manga and run-of-the-mill comics coexist more or less peacefully, because there is no real overlap between them. Comics sales were already in the toilet, largely due to pre-existing shifts in the industry, when manga broke in a big way internationally, and many manga titles could be seen as catering to an otherwise long abandoned readership, known to many as the female of the species.
Manga in France, however, is marked by engagement, and you can take this in both a positive and negative sense: positive, as in the 17 creators volume (i.e. actually involving Japanese artists), but also negative, as in Thierry Groensteen’s identification of the presence of manga in the Franco-Belgian market as a “peril.” This sense of “peril,” while worthy of at least a few eye rolls, is not without justification. Unlike in the US market, manga is understood to have supplanted a large swath of the potential Francophone readership, meaning with the sudden appearance of a large number of translated manga titles, readers who might ordinarily gravitate toward the work of, say, L’Association artists have been co-opted by manga. In Germany, manga account for something like 80% of all comic sales now, so the sense that native markets have been overrun with foreign invaders, while to my mind rather silly, has some grounding in fact.
As Boilet sees it, la nouvelle manga is a Franco-Japanese hybrid meant to antagonize both a certain stereotype of BD as well as what manga in France is understood to be. Re: manga, “[m]ost of the manga that have been translated in French over the past ten years have been commercial manga aimed at teenagers, to follow on from the animated series which preceded them on French TV screens. Their themes are adventure or Sci-Fi, featuring heroes…”; re: BD, “compared to manga, the BD puts more focus on drawing. Its authors are first and foremost illustrators, often more preoccupied with graphics than with scenario. The readers are the first to confirm this «emphasis» given to graphics: an album with skilful or fashionable drawings will always find buyers in France, even if the story is lousy or stupid…” The phrase la nouvelle manga itself represents this antagonism, for in French, the word manga is actually masculine, i.e. le manga. The feminization of the word in French is meant to emphasize a desire to affiliate the work of this movement with what he refers to as “daily-life manga,” which are opposed, in his mind, to the male teenage power fantasies of both “classic” SF and adventure BD as well as the various Shōnen JUMP titles that are popular in France.
Nicholas et Nicolas
In 2005, there was a World’s Fair (or, in this case, Expo) in Aichi-ken, the prefecture where I was living at the time. You wouldn’t be remiss for being unaware of this fact, since, as I later discovered, it was to be a very Japanese affair, meaning foreigners and foreign things were on display for the benefit of a mostly Japanese audience. Even going there with my parents as attendees of this monstrosity, I felt like we were always on display. This fact was confirmed for me when I found out that students from the high school where my wife was employed had gone around taking pictures of foreigners with their cellphones in order to see how many they could collect. Le sigh…
Reading Nicolas de Crécy’s “The New Gods” in the 17 creators volume is a rather disorienting experience. Apparently, he was in Nagoya around the same time I was, as one of the French comic artists invited to come there by Boilet as part of the project to produce the volume at hand. The story is told from the perspective of an idea, an as yet unformed design concept/mascot for the (now failed) French bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics. It wanders through Osu Kannon in Nagoya looking for character design inspiration. Osu is actually a temple, but it’s the common parlance for a series of shopping arcades that spider throughout that part of the city. As it looks up at one point, it gazes upon Kikkoro and Morizō, the official mascots of the Ai·chikyū-haku, as it was known in Japanese.
“Unusual and eloquent” are likely the last words I would use to describe these green and pale green turds the prefectural government decided to decorate everything with that year. There comes a point in living somewhere, even if it’s nothing like where you are from, that what might have struck you at first as novel or “weird” comes to seem perfectly normal, when high melodrama just becomes what all TV shows should be, when you expect the stares everywhere you go, even from people who have known you for some time. This ill-formed inkling of a character design provides the opportunity for one such as myself, who believes (wrongly?) that he has become immune to Japan’s idiosyncrasies, to be uncomfortable again and see things with a kind of wide-eyed awe.
Of course, everyone comes crashing down to Earth at some point.
There are plenty of things to raise an eyebrow at in Boilet’s collection: the rather odd transliteration of Japanese words (e.g. shenkasen instead of shinkansen in the “New Gods” story, as well as yakusa instead of yakuza), the French artists’ misshapen rendering of the Japanese written language (which, to the credit of some, is occasionally legible!), and the depiction of Japan as a patchwork of stereotypical images and objects of aesthetic amusement.
Of course, as I noted above, the text is honest about its exoticizing tendencies, and though I may gag at the idea that Japan is mysterious and elusive (much of which mystery is a figment concocted by long term residents who don’t bother to, oh I don’t know, learn a single word of the language), Japanese culture does, in many ways, push back against those who come to it from the outside. To ignore this fact is to misrepresent what it is like to be there both as an “artist-traveler” and as an expat.
In this, then, the 17 creators volume is a much better manifesto than Boilet’s diatribe, because what I gather from my rather limited research so far is that la nouvelle manga is as much a cultural disorientation as it is a transnational comics movement. This disorientation is directed both at an object of external cultural influence (in this case, Japan) as at a native habitus that has become stifling and unproductive. In being between BD and manga both culturally and linguistically, the point is not to be French in Japan or pseudo-Japanese in France but neither, that is open to a kind of ongoing transformative influence that one takes back to her native habitat so as to reinvigorate it, just like de Crécy’s still undetermined character design.
Next week: a look at a Japanese artist associated with the Nouvelle Manga movement, Anno Moyoko!
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