Comics

Four-Eyed Stranger #19: “A Brief Interlude in Daily Life”

Solvitur ambulando: “It is solved by walking.”

Jiro Taniguchi celebrates the dreamlike and fleeting happiness to be found on a simple walk in a peaceful part of town.

A man goes for a walk around his neighborhood. By accident, his glasses fall off and shatter on the ground. Rather than lose his temper, he discovers that the experience offers a new way of looking at his surroundings, both the blurry, impressionistic view without glasses, and the fractured and multi-layered perspective provided by the broken lenses.

“I think you have some spares,” his wife says, when he returns home.

“No wait,” he replies, ending the story. “I want to hang on to these a while longer.”

Taking place about halfway through Jiro Taniguchi’s The Walking Man, the story “A Shattered Landscape” typifies the style, plot and theme of all 18 short stories in this wonderful collection.

In each story, the unnamed main character (the titular Walking Man) strolls through his neighborhood or the nearby countryside, and something occurs that gives him a different perspective on the world. These tiny epiphanies last only a moment, and there’s never an obvious lesson or moral to them. Instead, he experiences an ephemeral and fugitive bit of wonder and joy.

The collection brings to mind Rebecca Solnit’s excellent 2000 book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, in which she explores how “The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts.”

“[T]he subject of walking is, in some sense, about how we invest universal acts with particular meanings. Like eating or breathing, it can be invested with wildly different cultural meanings, from the erotic to the spiritual, from the revolutionary to the artistic,” she writes. “Walking, ideally, is a state of mind in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.”

That feeling of “three notes suddenly making a chord” resonates strongly throughout Taniguchi’s Walking Man. In one dialogue-free story, the main character finds himself unintentionally and unexpectedly in a sort of race with an older man walking along the same route. When the old man takes the lead, and the two become separated at a railroad crossing by a passing train, the main character discovers the old man waiting for him on the other side of the crossing. They resume their walk together without a word, simply enjoying the company and the peacefulness of their surroundings in unspoken harmony.

Originally published in Japan in 1992, Ponent Mon published an English translation in 2004, and Taniguchi’s detailed and delicate black and white artwork astounds on every one of its 155 pages. Even though the artwork has been reversed for English edition, so it reads left-to-right, rather than the usual right-to-left format of most manga, no effects seem to have been lost in the flip. It isn’t even noticeable due to the quiet beauty of the art and stories that dominates the reading experience.

Also striking is Taniguchi’s low-key subject matter, which French comic book creator and mangaka Frédéric Boilet cites as an example of “daily-life manga,” a style that influenced the Nouvelle Manga movement.

“At least half of Japanese comics tell stories of men and women and their everyday lives. This attachment to daily life as a theme is for me the principal reason of manga's success with a broad range of readers,” he writes in his Nouvelle Manga Manifesto. “Daily-life manga, which I think should be able to reach a larger audience than just otaku in France, is a more adult manga, with daily life portrayed without overemphasis or stereotypes...The term Nouvelle Manga was thus born in Japan to define my picture stories that are neither completely BD (Bande dessinées) nor completely manga, and that remind of the tone of French cinema.”

Taniguchi’s narrative-free style does evoke French New Wave films at times, but the main character is almost mythological in his power to find and appreciate perfect moments on each story’s walk, which often follows directly on the heels of the previous one.

When characters speak in these stories they usually talk about the most simple and mundane things, as if Taniguchi is deliberately avoiding poetic or metaphoric language in order to emphasize the Zen-like beauty to be found by being “in the moment.” The joy the man experiences on his walks seems to approach the “unfolding of the mind” described in Zen Buddhism as satori.

“Satori may be defined as an intuitive looking into the nature of things in contradistinction to the analytical or logical understanding of it,” writes D.T. Suzuki, in an essay on Satori collected in his Selected Writings. “Practically, it means the unfolding of a new world hitherto unperceived in the confusion of a dualistically-trained mind. Or we may say that with satori our entire surroundings are viewed from quite an unexpected angle of perception.”

However, in The Walking Man, the powerful moments experienced by the main character are so quiet, so light and pleasant that they seem to fall short of true satori.

“To deserve the name ‘satori’ the mental revolution must be so complete as to make one really and sincerely feel that there took place a fiery baptism of the spirit,” writes D.T. Suzuki.

If the main character has any epiphanies on his walks, they are more celebratory of peaceful, beautiful moments in nature than “fiery baptisms.” The collection does hint at a major change undergone by the main character, but it isn’t revealed (or rather, suggested) until the final story, “10 years later...”

As the title suggests, this story takes place long after the events described in the previous 17 stories. The main character seems to have undergone a change: maybe he no longer lives in the same area; he might be consumed with work and there’s no mention of his wife or home life. Nothing is overtly stated, but there’s a sense that he’s somehow heavier in spirit that he was earlier. It’s easy to imagine that he might be divorced or at least feeling dissatisfied with his current life.

This is also the only story with narration, which begins with a plain description of the main character getting off the train one stop before his office “on a whim” and walking along the riverside in an unfamiliar part of the city. By comparison to its start, the narration at the story’s end has a delicate, hushed quality that brings to mind a haiku:

“A brief interlude in daily life./Where nothing is pressing./I walk along the pathless bank of the river, slowly.”

In combination with the artwork, the effect recalls Raymond Carver’s writing, for example his poem “Happiness,” in which the narrator is struck by the peacefulness and serenity he perceives while watching two boys delivering newspapers early one morning:

The sky is taking on light,

though the moon still hangs pale over the water.

Such beauty that for a minute

death and ambition, even love,

doesn't enter into this.

Happiness. It comes on

unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,

any early morning talk about it.

In Taniguchi’s story, the main character encounters an old man fishing but hoping that no fish will bite, an image that could also encapsulate the entire collection.

“Understand, I rushed around enough in my life,” the old man says. “So that now it’s time to take life easy, slowly...It’s wonderful, isn’t it?”

Taniguchi creates the same effect in the reader. This is the kind of book that can change, if only for a moment, a person’s perspective of the world, like any good walk.

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Appearing every other week, Four-Eyed Stranger looks at classic manga and unusual modern work by Asian artists.

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