Four-Eyed Stranger #3: Time, ‘Travel’ and Sesame Street

A fascinating and complex balancing act, Yuichi Yokoyama’s Travel mixes an explosively kinetic, bold visual style with an intriguing sense of emptiness. It brings to mind a famous verse from the Tao te Ching:

‘We shape clay into a pot,

but it is the emptiness inside

that holds whatever we want.’

An enigmatic and wordless work, Travel follows three characters as they take a train trip somewhere in Japan, and along the way all manner of strange things happen. Or not. It’s hard to tell.

‘Without giving anything away, the plot, in the traditional sense of the word, is negligible’, writes Paul Karasik in his introduction to the book.

Who knew William Empson was also describing 21st century manga in his classic treatise on the Seven Types of Ambiguity:

‘We call it ambiguous, I think, when we recognize that there could be a puzzle as to what the author meant, in that alternative views might be taken without sheer misreading’, he wrote in 1930.

One of the most immediately striking elements of Travel, the hypnotic effect of Yokoyama’s art, also provides the momentum that propels a reader through the entire 195-page tale. The clean lines, almost psychedelic compositions and strangely fractured actions shift points of view and narrative flow constantly.

In his examination of the book, Paul Gravett assigns this to Yokoyama’s ‘heightened sense of presence while in motion’.

‘Many pages play with trompe l’oeil effects and puzzle-like viewpoints forcing us to re-orientate and observe attentively’, Gravett writes. ‘Whose viewpoint are we seeing? And from what angle? Whose eyes are we looking through? Are they human eyes at all?’

The panel’s ‘camera’ angle often jumps suddenly into a minute close-up, or to a layered deep-focus shot of the landscape. It’s hard to tell what’s important because everything’s important.

The panels themselves alternate in shape frequently, yet manage to create a single rectangular outline for the overall page. The collection of irregular quadrangles that compose a single page bring to mind the classic Chinese tangram puzzles.

‘In my case, I do not have any “stories,” as such. There are no stories in my manga–just the impressions in each panel, that is what I want to consider’, Yokoyama says, in an interview with PictureBox publisher Dan Nadel and others.

Those impressions balance high-energy and nearly chaotic action with cold and bland (to the point of appearing menacing) facial expressions on all of the people in the story. Everyone in this story could be wearing a kabuki mask.

‘I want to delete the human feelings because the reader wants to emotionally take sides with one particular person and I’d prefer they remain neutral. That’s why I don’t want to produce a scene where people feel sympathy with a particular person’.

Yokoyama’s ‘neutrality’ seems to jibe with Empson’s sixth type of ambiguity, which ‘occurs when a statement says nothing . . . so that the reader is forced to invent statements of his own and they are liable to conflict with one another’.

Chris Lanier connects this emotional frigidity with Yokoyama’s drawing style, which seems to isolate and deconstruct rapid actions by splitting them into slices of time.

‘The action is exquisitely frozen’, Lanier writes in his essay on Yokoyama for The High Hat. ‘There’s something arresting about the contradiction of rapidity and stillness. A detail that would be impossible to scan in real time is laid open for leisurely examination’.

Lanier links this freezing-splitting technique with the work of EC Comics icon Bernard Krigstein, and draws special attention to similarities in Krigstein’s infamous “Master Race” story from 1955, which culminates in a similar dissection of a crucial action into many smaller moments.

In his introduction to Travel, Karasik also draws comparisons between Yokoyama’s mise-en-scene with Krigstein’s ‘icy detachment’, and calls them soul brothers.

‘They both share a deep interest in the mechanics of comics, and specifically the ways in which comics manhandle time’, he writes.

Grant Geissman quotes Krigstein in his book on EC Comics, Foul Play: ‘I wanted panels; I was deperate for panels . . . So, out of desperation, I began subdividing the panels’.

‘More so than any other artist of the time, Krigstein was fascinated with the emotion, drama, and mood that could be conveyed by the arranging or rearranging of the panels’, Geissman writes.

Travel also echoes the work of an influential and experimental storyteller outside of the comics medium: famed “new novelist” Alain Robbe-Grillet.

His work ‘interrogated and challenged conventional narrative modes . . . altered or abolished fictional elements such as character, plot, setting, point of view, and chronological time in favor of repetitions, an absence of emotion, minute objective and sometimes geometric descriptions, the lack of authorial analysis, and the deconstruction of time’, writes Mark Hanstra in his Scriptorium profile of Robe-Grillet.

All lit-crit aside, there’s also a funkiness to the work. Some characters wear clothes and sort ‘dos that could come right out of a Sears catalogue from 1976. Combined with Yokoyama’s bold and flowing lines, it’s hard not to think of the classic Sesame Street animation ’12’, sung by the Pointer Sisters.