In early 2006, Dirk Schwieger was living in Japan and creating comics based on “assignments” from readers. They’d ask him to try different things — visiting a love hotel and a pod hotel, exploring Harajuku fashion, trying foods like okonomiyaki or natto — and he’d post his results, drawn in a Moleskine notebook, to his blog. Now, they’ve been collected as Moresukine: Uploaded Weekly From Tokyo, the Japanese pronunciation of the name of his notebook. Contributing to the reader’s feeling of being part of the experience, the graphic novel is formatted like a Moleskine: plain black paper cover, rounded corners, even a ribbon page marker.
One might expect that tasks from internet readers would focus on shallow, populist stereotypes of Japan, but the wide range of assignments provides a better overview than someone with a particular preconceived perspective. It’s motivated by an honest curiosity, both on Dirk’s part and from those sharing his experiences virtually, especially since Dirk would do what was asked regardless of whether it was something he would have chosen on his own. (In that respect, it’s like reviewing — tackling works sent to you can be eye-opening, especially when you find enjoyment in something you never would have otherwise picked up.) The mundane items, such as trying to figure out a technologically advanced toilet when you can’t read the markings, or how people survive with such small apartments, ground the work. Although he covers the expected — origami, temples — he also introduces the reader to less-well-known features of Tokyo, such as the rustic Mount Takao or a contemporary art museum.
There’s nothing more immediate in terms of immersion in an experience than comics. Journalism of this sort is well-suited to the medium, which allows for an efficient presentation of visual material. Of particular interest is the assignment on gender roles, printed on a foldout to capture the map-style presentation of fluidity, cross-dressing, and boundary-crossing. The explanation of the “spacial strategy of scattering one’s apartment all over town”, showing communal bathing, dining, and visiting love hotels, will also stick with me. The thick lines and concentration on shapes instead of detail are due to the comics’ methods of creation: drawn in a journal, then posted online.
The book’s biggest flaw is that the entries are too short! Each topic gets four pages, when some could have supported many more. The visit to the Studio Ghibli Museum, for example, I found hard to follow because he’s trying to pack so much into his short space. The text overcomes the images, crowded together, and I know he had much more to say about it.
Dirk not only shows what he did but his thoughts about it as well. His “para para” club experience, where everyone does the same hand movements on the dance floor, simultaneously expresses the zombie-like creepiness of de-individualization and the welcoming comfort of being part of a larger group. The awareness of mortality that comes with his last assignment, eating fugu (poisonous blowfish) sushi, is beautifully symbolized by flashbacks to his previous entries.
To conclude the book, Dirk dared ten other international cartoonists to have a conversation with a Japanese person in the city where they live. The participants best-known to American audiences are James Kochalka (American Elf), who directly tackles the off-putting racial nature of this request, and Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics), whose usage of clip art makes him a poor choice for the section. Some almost completely ignore the request, while others turn out something predictable about different cultures. It’s the weakest section of the book. Best of the bunch is the French Monsieur Le Chien, who satirizes stereotypes, the internet, commercial culture, sexism, and multi-culturalism, all with terrific art. (The publisher provided a review copy.)