Nine French. Eight Japanese. Sixteen Stories
You would expect and odd little mixed bag from a project like this, and an odd little mixed bag is exactly what you get. Conceived as a cultural exchange project by the French Institute and Alliance in Japan, eight French comic artists were invited to visit various parts of Japan with the only requirement being that they created a black-and-white comic regarding something of the area. These comics were combined with eight comics done by native Japanese artists, and there you have “Japan: As Viewed by Seventeen Creators.” (Yes, the numbers do not add up. One of the comics was done by a writer/artist team giving you seventeen creators for sixteen comics.)
One thing you cannot expect is travelogues. Only a few of the invited French artists framed their comics as travel pieces. Most of them were inspired to create some story of the local, some personal reflection more on themselves than Japan, or something entirely unexpected. The two travelers to Osaka, Francois Shuiten and Benoit Peeters, envisioned a Sci-Fi tinged future of an elegant sky garden with floating restaurants and a nine-hole golf course, and a city mascot of a newly discovered insect that converts pollution to clean air. Nicolas De Crecy came up with a story of an advertising executive bringing an unformed mascot to Nagoya where the mascot could mix with the local Japanese product characters and maybe gain some inspiration. Emmanuel Guibert has a prose-and-pictures piece on a friend names Shin. Ichi who loved the West in a way many Westerners love the East.
A few were more straight forward. Three of the stories mention the public hot springs and bathing culture of Japan, comparing the different body cultures of France and Japan. Aurelia Aurita, a half-Chinese, half-Cambodian French woman, is delighted to be mistaken for Japanese although her bottoms-only tan lines give her away as a free-spirited French woman used to the topless beaches of France. Fabrice Neaud gives a melancholy account of going to Japan with a bad case of heartbreak, and wondering why he cannot find gay culture in Japan. Joann Sfar is teamed up with an expat French man living long-term in Japan, but with a distain for the culture and a pride in never learning any Japanese.
The Japanese creators generally turned in little pieces of nostalgia. Kan Takahama gives a sweet little love story set on the small isle of Amakusa that has almost been entire depopulated as people move to work in the cities. The ever-brilliant Jiro Taniguchi (The Quest for the Missing Girl) delivers an equally subtle and poignant love story of the village girl left behind. Moyoko Anno has a short period piece of a young girl looking to buy a singing cricket at the insect market.
I certainly didn’t love every piece of “Japan: As Viewed by Seventeen Creators.” It would be almost impossible to get so many different artists without someone’s style I don’t connect with. Probably my least-favorite was Joann Sfar’s. I knew too many of that type of person when I lived in Japan and always despised them. I don’t want to read about them now. I wasn’t a fan of Fabrice Neaud’s introspective comic either. Too much hand-wringing and self-pity for me. Some of them surprised me, like Aurelia Aurita’s and Nicolas De Crecy’s. At first glance, they seemed somewhat typical, but when I actually started reading the stories they were charming. And De Crecy made me notice the oddness of naming cigarette brands Hope and Peace for the first time. I smoked both in Japan, and never thought about the irony of the names.
Ponent Mon created a similar work Korea As Viewed By 12 Creators, as a celebration of the120th anniversary of Franco-Korean diplomatic relations.