A Zoo in Winter

Review by Ed Sizemore

A Zoo in Winter is based on Jiro Taniguchi’s own beginnings in the manga industry back in the late 1960s. The protagonist, Hamaguchi, quits his job at a small textile firm to become an assistant to a manga creator. The book portrays key moments from his first two years as an assistant.

Change is one of the themes of the book. Not just the life-altering changes that Hamaguchi is obviously going through, but the changes Japanese culture is experiencing, too. The 60s brought the same unrest to Japanese college students and young adults that it did to their American counter-culture counterparts.

One place that is experiencing big change at the time is manga. By the time Hamaguchi begins his apprenticeship, the gekiga manga movement was in full force. Magazines like Garo, Com, and Comic Baku were helping to create a venue for experimental and alternative manga. A couple times in A Zoo in Winter, we hear characters talking about manga’s potential to change the world.

The moments that Taniguchi tells of us are all firsts: the first time Hamaguchi becomes an assistant to a manga artist, his first time doing nude drawings, his first time getting drunk, his first time falling in love, etc. They are also key moments that help shape Hamaguchi as a man, and by extension, who he will be as a manga artist.

One of my favorite chapters in the book is when Hamaguchi’s unnamed older brother comes for a visit. Their father had died when Hamaguchi was young, so his brother served as a surrogate. It’s during this visit that Hamaguchi finally gets to see his brother as a person and not a parental figure. It’s a moment of maturity that all of us go through, and Taniguchi captures it with proper subtlety and poignancy.

I’m also a sucker for Hamaguchi’s first romance with Mariko. He meets her as a favor for a friend, but they end up hitting it off. The problem is that Mariko has a frail constitution and is constantly under a doctor’s supervision. She isn’t allowed much free time away from the hospital. At first, people assume it’s just pity that Hamaguchi feels, but it becomes evident his affection is real. Their relationship is further tested when Maiko moves back home to continue treatments in a hospital close to her parents. There’s still a part of me that finds such melodramatic romances touching.

I really don’t have any new ways to praise Taniguchi’s art. His linework is as delicate and precise as ever. The realism of his art is perfect for the down-to-earth stories he tells. I love all the detail he puts into each page. Characters don’t have a uniform they wear throughout the book; with each new day, we see a new set of clothes. There are some wonderful panels of Tokyo at night. As always, a Taniguchi book is a feast for the eyes.

It’s no surprise by now — Taniguchi is one of my favorite comic creators. His stories resonate deeply with me. The characters, the themes, the art, all of it speaks to me in powerful ways. I’m thankful to see Fanfare/Ponent Mon moving to hardcover editions of his works. I treasure his books, and they deserve the best presentation available. If you like realistic stories that are more meditative in tone, then Taniguchi is a must-read. A Zoo in Winter is a tremendously satisfying book that I look forward to reading several more times in my life. (The publisher provided a review copy.)


  1. It is a wonderful, humane book. Much slower in pace and thoughtful compared to Bakuman (which I do quite enjoy reading – a feather pen on pp. 190 and I thought of Nizuma.) I do wonder why Fanfare / Potent Mon flips some of his work, like this one, but not others like, “The Summit of the Gods.” I also wonder if the work was first translated into French and then into English. Two of the footnotes are curiously in French. Small things. I enjoy all of Taniguchi’s work and preorder it, sight unseen, it’s that good. The hardback was a welcome surprise though – I didn’t read the product details description closely enough on Amazon.

  2. Kris,

    Which footnotes were in French? I don’t remember that and I don’t read French. My old eyes must have missed them.

    That’s a good question about why some books are flipped. I know the French flip their manga and A Zoo in Winter has been published in France, so maybe you’re on to something.

  3. Finally areview of Zoo In Winter that doesnt compare BAkuman to this negtivelly.

  4. The first footnote is on pp. 89 under the third panel. They are going to a Go-Go club called, “Black Hole,” and the footnote says, ” * Trou noir.” I found this to be a slightly ambiguous note. Was it a famous club in 1968 Tokyo like CBGB was in 1970’s NYC? Or was the name of the club originally in English and needed to be translated into French and the footnote was overlooked? Or conversely was the club’s name originally in French translated in the panel into English and the note just gives the original name back to the curious? It’s hard to say.

    The second footnote is on pp. 207 under the sixth panel. They are talking about sports manga being popular and the footnote says, ” * supo-kon: sport et persévérance.” This is the one that really made me think that it was translated first into French. Then I looked at the copyright page and saw that the English translation rights were arranged through ” le Bureau des Copyrights Français, Tokyo.” Just what exactly they do is a mystery to me.

  5. Kris,

    Wow,you caught me sleeping. I just assumed the actual name of the club was Trou Noir and didn’t think twice. For the second footnote, since it’s so close to English I just glossed over it. Thanks for pointing those out to me.

  6. […] I forgot to mention I’ve got a new translation that just came out: Jiro Taniguchi’s semi-autobiographical A ZOO IN WINTER from Fanfare – Ponent Mon. You can see some reviews of it at the links below.
    http://comicsworthreading.com/2011/10/04/a-zoo-in-winter/ […]

  7. My love of The Walking Man was surprising, I couldn’t believe how wonderful that “story” was. Since then I’ve made sure to get my hands on everything of Jiro Taniguchi’s released over here. I read a Zoo in Winter the day Amazon delivered it and enjoyed it a lot.

    Although people are comparing this to Bakuman? That seems a bit silly, the only thing they have in common is that it’s about someone becoming a mangaka. After that the comparisons end. The time period, mood, maturity, genre, art style, etc…of both series are clearly targetted at different markets (although I’m sure there are many out there that enjoy both).

  8. […] A Zoo in Winter by Jiro Taniguichi. I feel like Taniguichi is writing his stories for me. His sense of nostalgia, […]

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