By Jason S. Yadao
Today’s profile: The Walking Man (1 volume)
Publisher: Fanfare/Ponent Mon
Age rating: N/A
Buying it: Good luck -- the publisher's online shop shows no purchase links available, and Amazon's listing shows copies starting from the amazingly low, low price of $67.20. (Keep in mind, this thing's cover price is $16.99.) Best bet may be to hope it pops up at a used bookstore.
This month's Manga Movable Feast, hosted by Ed Sizemore over at Manga Worth Reading, focuses on the hidden treasures of artist Jiro Taniguchi. I call them "hidden treasures" because unlike last month's MMF-featured artist, Osamu Tezuka, you'll hardly ever walk into a store and find books by him sitting on the shelves (at least, not here in the islands, anyway). Granted, there were a handful of his titles that Borders picked up -- that's how I learned of the joys of A Distant Neighborhood -- but, well, we all know where Borders ended up. His most accessible work at the moment, aside from what pops in and out of print on Amazon, may well be Kodoku no Gourmet, the manga he worked on with Masayuki Kusumi about a lone gourmet enjoying the delights at local restaurants and ramen shops that's available on JManga.com.
Shame, really. Because if there's anything A Distant Neighborhood and another series I've briefly addressed in this space, Summit of the Gods, taught me, it's that Taniguchi is a mangaka worth following. Looking at the lineup of MMF pieces reminds me of all the books I've heard of but never had the opportunity to read yet -- The Times of Botchan, The Quest for the Missing Girl, A Zoo in Winter, just to name a few.
To really capture the essence of Taniguchi, though, one needs only to experience The Walking Man. Yes, you could just replace "experience" with "read" in the last sentence. But then you'd be glazing over the whole point of looking at this book.
The premise is as stated in the title: There's this guy -- I'd peg him to be a middle-aged businessman -- and he walks around. A lot. Repeat this over 155 pages, and that's the book. It's like those installments of "The Family Circus" in the Sunday comics where one of the kids wanders around from point A to point B with a dotted line tracing his convoluted path, except these journeys unfold frame by frame in intricate manga storytelling style.
It sounds incredibly dull. And for the manga reader who expects something, anything to happen to the characters they're reading about other than "they exist," it is. Heck, we learn more about the man's dog (his name is Snowy!) than we do about the man himself (his name is [fill in the blank here with whatever you wish, there are no right or wrong answers]!) Here's the essence of the first seven chapters:
- Man meets bird watchers
- It snows
- Man explores town
- Man climbs tree
- It rains
- Man skinny-dips
- It storms
Throw in the phrase "Walking Man summary" and add in a few punctuation marks, and you could actually fit that into a single tweet with a few characters to spare. (Yes, I actually checked this.)
But The Walking Man isn't meant for those people looking for action-oriented thrills. Rather, its target audience is really those who are able to find beauty in the seemingly mundane. Like I said in my look at A Distant Neighborhood, Taniguchi's strengths are in rendering the intricacies of a particular scene and generating empathy for his characters. Whatever the man experiences in this book, we experience as well. If he feels like getting off a bus and walking to the top of a small hill, basking in the breezes and noting a marker where the altitude is exactly that of the peak of Mount Fuji, then we follow right along with him. When a wayward ball knocks off his glasses and he accidentally steps on them, Taniguchi shows us his blurred world view when he isn't wearing them, and the fractured view when he is.
Devoid of any plot to concentrate on, we're free to focus instead on the details with which Taniguchi has populated this man's world -- the stranger with whom our unnamed protagonist silently bonds on one walk, the wayward elderly lady and the children playing their recorders in the streets on another, the "sklunk!" of a can of coffee dropping from a vending machine. Thus the reason why I wrote earlier that The Walking Man is more to be experienced than to be read becomes clearer: The reason why this book appears at first glance to be about nothing from a storytelling standpoint is because "nothing" is exactly what Taniguchi wanted us to embrace. The man clearly has an identity and a job that keeps him busy, but that doesn't matter; we're always seeing him unplugged from that, walking somewhere, enjoying whatever life happens to present to him on a particular day.
This manga may have been released in 1992 in Japan and around 2004 in the U.S., but its message may be even more relevant in the information-dense, go-go-go environment of 2012: Relax. Take a walk. Enjoy life. That's what's most important.