The Ice Wanderer and Other Stories
Story and art by Jiro Taniguchi
Translation by Elizabeth Tiernan & Shizuka Shimoyama
Jiro Taniguchi has been a bit of an acquired taste for me. On the surface, there are some qualities to his work that I find repellent. His characters are often stiffly solid and inexpressive. His drawings sometimes accumulate detail in a way that detracts from the overall page design. There's a certain level of detachment to his storytelling that subverts my involvement as a reader. Often I find that his work exists purely at a surface level, with little in the way of subtext or nuance to keep me engaged.
And yet, Taniguchi is such a gifted artist and craftsman that I'm continually drawn to his work, even if I ultimately find it unsatisfying.
By now, you probably don't need me to tell you what to think of The Ice Wanderer and Other Stories, the latest Taniguchi release from Fanfare/Ponent Mon — dozens of other blogs have already weighed in. So I'll just go ahead and discuss the most memorable sequence from the book.
"Our Mountains" is a simple story — a Japanese hunter tracks down the one-eared bear who hilled his son, and by defeating it he's overcomes his own guilt. The strength of the story doesn't lie in its originality, of which there is none. It doesn't lie in the tense psychological drama, of which there is, again, none. It lies in the effective ways in which Taniguchi allows the struggle between man and beast to play out across the page.
Here's the climactic scene from "Our Mountains" where the hunter and bear finally face off. (My apologies for the small size of the images — because this is such a long excerpt I didn't feel comfortable reproducing these at the usual size.)
The bear tracks subtly lead your eyes across the right-hand page — from the solid black figure of the hunter they arc across the upper part of the page, curve down the right hand side, and lead you to the diagonal thrust of the hunter's hand and the slope he's standing on, catapulting you to the left-hand page. It's basic storytelling, but very well-done.
Unfortunately, I think the level of detail undercuts the effectiveness of these pages just a tad — the tangled growths of trees and cluttered shrubs sometimes shift the focus from the central figures to the background. To some extent, this is an effective way of putting you inside the hunter's head, shifting, confused, unsure of where your quarry lurks. But more often than not it just makes the pages hard to read.
Fortunately, Taniguchi's has one sure-fire way to keep you focused: the bear. The bear is big, black, and boldly inked. He feels much more real than everything else on the page, which is delineated with a fine, sensitive line. Every time your eyes start to drift towards irrelevant details those inky blobs grab them and force them to focus on the action. That thin close-up of the bear's eyes is the most noticeable and arresting panel on these two pages, and more than anything else they indicate that the time for wandering around in the snow is over — we're about to have some explosive action.
One thing that's not going to be clear from this excerpt is that until this point, Taniguchi has been very conservative with his panel layouts. For the most part he's been using simple rectangular panels, and hasn't allowed them to bleed to the edge of the page. But as action approaches, the borders begin to skew slightly, and panels start to creep towards the edge of the page.
Something else worth noting is that during this entire sequence, Taniguchi is using horizontal gutters to indicate changes in perspective or dominance. The top tiers of the left-hand page, for instance, are from the bear's perspective, but the bottom tiers are from the hunter's perspective. And they're separated by the only horizontal gutter on the page.
Taniguchi signals that it's go time by throwing a splash page at us — the only one in the entire story. In terms of raw energy, this page isn't very active, but then again, that's not the feel Taniguchi is going for. This isn't a hyperkinetic fight manga for boys, this is a down-to-earth survival story for men, and the level of restraint shown here helps underscore that.
First blood to the hunter, who seizes dominance in the fight — and a horizontal gutter marks his ascendance. He's got to keep on the offensive, though, and a flurry of tight, hyper-focused close-ups communicates the frantic speed at which he's reloading. Unfortunately for him, the same amount of time (space) it takes him to reload is the same amount of time (space) it takes the bear to stand up.
The hunter keeps firing, but the bear keeps coming — a horizontal gutter marks a shift from the hunter's perspective to the bear's perspective. The hunter's spear breaks off, and the bear seizes the offensive — a horizontal gutter marks the transition.
While the hunter is firing his rifle, Taniguchi sticks primarily to medium and long shots, but when the action shifts to hand-to-hand combat he shifts to a series of small, tight close-ups that helps emphasize the chaotic turmoil. Also note that Taniguchi is no longer using panels to indicate discrete actions — each tier is less of a sequence and more of a series of quick simultaneous snapshots from the same vantage point.
And as the fight intensifies, the panel-per-spread count increases, up to sixteen or seventeen panels per spread (from twelve or thirteen panels per spread in the non-action sequences). This may seem like an relatively insignificant change, but the increase in panel density is very noticeable once you sit down and look at the pages in question.
Hey, it's the faithful hunting dog to the rescue! Now the sides are equally matched. Horizontal gutter. The perspective shifts over to the hunter. Horizontal gutter. The hunting dog seizes the offensive. Horizontal gutter. Back to the hunter reloading. Horizontal gutter. Back from the hunter to the fight. Horizontal gutter.
Note that the dog has bought the hunter time to reload — no frantic flurry of panels here, but one long, smooth, continuous action.
Another instance where the detail works against comprehension — it's hard to pick out the action in those upper-right hand panels. Then again, the dog is caught up in the underbrush in much the same way that your eyes are caught on the details, so maybe it's intentional.
That panel of the bear being shot is the only panel in the story where an object crosses over the panel borders. Actually, scratch that — it's the only panel in the entire book where an object crosses over the panel borders. The sudden novelty of the gimmick makes the panel stand out even more. And of course it's the first large panel for several pages with a plain white background — no speed lines or tone or stray lines — which increases its impact as well.
Once the bear is dead, of course, everything goes back to normal — rigid rectangular panels. But they're still bleeding out to the edge of the page, which primes the reader to expect more action. And there is more to come, of course, but it's an emotional and psychological climax, not a physical one.
And there you have it, a fight scene masterfully choreographed by some solid formal elements, and probably my favorite thing about The Ice Wanderer.