by Jiro Taniguchi; adapted by Kumar Sivasubramanian
published by Fanfare/Ponent Mon; $23 US
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.)