This month’s Manga Moveable Feast features the works of Jiro Taniguchi, a creator I only know by name. I was excited to dive into someone completely new to me, and a quick search of my local library system turned up three choices — the first volume of The Times of Botchan, Samurai Legend, and the A Zoo in Winter. I remembered the last of the three getting a little buzz before it came out; I always enjoy a good coming of age story (being at that age, I suppose) so I snagged A Zoo in Winter and read it slowly throughout this past week.
The story focuses on nineteen year old Hamaguchi, who’s recently moved to Kyoto. Not exactly sure where he wants to go in life (or how to get there), Hamaguchi has spent the last six months working at a fabric wholesaler delivering merchandise to retail stories, all the while dreaming of becoming a manga artist. He doesn’t seem particularly passionate about his current job (but doesn’t seem to outright hate it either), and makes no obvious moves to break into the manga biz. With seeming no driving force or passion – typical in that fuzzy time between schooling and being established – things simply “happen” to Hamaguchi. In reading A Zoo in Winter, I thought it was interesting that three particular happenings – Ayako, Kondo, and Mariko – eventually cause Hamaguchi to find his own driving force in life.
The first thing to “happen” to Hamaguchi is the boss’s daughter, Ayako. The talk of the office, Ayako’s husband has given her the dump, presumably after finding out she’d been having an affair. Ayako seems less than apologetic, and her humiliated father (the ex-husband came from a family of textile makers, surely a divorce didn’t help business) demands a chaperone. Not one to protest, Hamaguchi eventually becomes Ayako’s full-fledged chaperone. Annoyed at first, it becomes obvious Hamaguchi enjoys Ayako’s company. Hamaguchi even goes so far as to try and find information on Ayako’s lover, Tsuruta, though I wasn’t sure of the motives behind this — romantic feelings, perhaps? On one final outing to the zoo on a cold winter day, Ayako asks Hamaguchi to follow her to a specific spot — where Ayako’s lover, Tsuruta is waiting.
Naturally Ayako elopes, which makes things prickly at Hamaguchi’s job. He’d let Ayako “get away”; rumors swirled that he’d even helped her do so. Confiding in his friend Tamura about his job woes, this leads to the second thing to “happen” to Hamaguchi — the manga artist, Kondo Shiro.
Eager to help Hamaguchi (who’s “really gifted at manga,” apparently) Tamura sets up a meeting (in Shinjuku, I believe) between a manga artist acquaintance of his — Kondo Shiro — and Hamaguchi in hopes that Hamaguchi can land an assistant gig. What Hamaguchi experiences is no less a “trial by fire”; thrown into the mix right before deadline, Hamaguchi is introduced to the other assistants — Moriwaki; Fujita; the female editor, Higashino — as well as the lively Mr. Kikuchi. Hamaguchi is immediately put to work with adding finishing touches to the manga. Overwhelmed, nervous, but awed by the energy of the group, Hamaguchi manages to quickly find a home at the manga studio. He socializes a bit more (even getting drunk at a bar) and finds himself swept up in the energy of the city and his co-workers.
An important interlude comes in the form of an unexpected visit from Hamaguchi’s big brother (giving him the familial validation for his chosen career and acknowledging him as an adult), followed by the final thing to “happening” to Hamaguchi — Mariko. The younger sister of a lady friend of Mr. Kikuchi and very sickly, Mariko isn’t able to get out much. Hamaguchi is again cast in the chaperone role. Prior to meeting Mariko though, Hamaguchi had been struggled to finish a manga of his own about a boy who gets sucked into the world of a picture book and has to save a princess. Pretty standard fare, but it becomes the crux of the Hamaguchi and Mariko’s budding relationship. Hamaguchi opens up about his writer’s block and Mariko is full of ideas. Ideas and inspiration are just what Hamaguchi needs (and the thrill of a new crush certainly helps) and he works to finish the manga just for Mariko. When Mariko and Hamaguchi’s relationship hits a roadblock, Hamaguchi is forced to confront his own feelings – ranging from love, selfishness, and general insecurity — in order to find his own passion and to see things through until the end not only for Mariko, but for himself.
Taken a whole, this is a nice coming of age story. I was a bit bored initially, but things picked up during the “Big Brother” arc as I realized just how Hamaguchi was being forced to buck up and finding a driving force within himself. What’s ironic is how much Hamaguchi’s passivity annoyed me initially. Hamaguchi reminded me of a leaf in the wind, allowing himself to be blown whichever way fate saw fit. Why he could take the reins of his own life almost made me dislike Hamaguchi. At the end I realized the real rub – Hamaguchi reminds me a lot of myself. Hamaguchi lack of direction seems so true to life; most don’t wake up one morning and decide to be a doctor or a lawyer, so it takes a bit of bumping around, tripping, random happenings, and just general growing up to get onto a road you can eventually be pleased with.
I think it would be great to revisit the story a few years from now and see my viewpoint then. For now, I would say I’m satisfied enough to check out more of Taniguchi’s work – A Distant Neighborhood, or The Walking Man, perhaps?
This piece is a part of the March 2012 Manga Moveable Feast, hosted by Manga Worth Reading.