- The 1970s: his debut
- The 1980s: his first work as an author
- The 1990s: The Walking Man
- The 2000s: European comics
- Jiro Taniguchi’s legacy
Jiro Taniguchi was born in Tottori in southern Japan in 1947, and grew from a boy with a passion for comics to one of the greatest ever Japanese manga artists (or ‘mangaka’), with a contemplative style combining meticulous drawings and superlative storytelling that saw him dubbed the ‘manga poet’.
When Taniguchi finished high school, he took a job in a factory. However, after a year of work, and with his artistic talents clearly apparent, he decided to take the plunge and moved to Tokyo, over 400 miles from home. A mutual friend helped him secure a role as assistant to master artist Kyota Yoshikawa, one of the leading exponents of gekiga (which literally means ‘dramatic images’) who strongly disapproved of the concept of manga (a word that combines the two words ‘idleness’ and ‘drawing’ to mean ‘drawing aimlessly’, with no social engagement).
Gekiga is a more mature, harsh and dramatic form of manga that tells the story of the poorest elements of Japanese society. The underground magazines Kom and Garo became its leading proponents, and Taniguchi was greatly influenced by Yoshikawa and these seminal publications in this period, taking from them many themes that he would go on to develop in subsequent years, especially concepts linked to wilderness and animals.
The 1970s: his debut
In 1971, Taniguchi started work on his first comic, the surreal thriller Chloroform, for a contest run by a publishing house. Although it was rejected, he refused to give up, and later that year made his debut with A Dessicated Summer, an experimental work, strongly influenced by the gekiga revolution, published in Young Comic magazine: an abstract thriller set in an apartment block that was formerly a brothel, featuring a child who sees his mother working as a prostitute.
His first series, however, did not come until 1974: the twelve-volume Unnamed Animals, in which each volume describes a human in close contact with an animal. This helped make Tanaguchi’s name, and marked the first step on his long exploration of nature and animals, which in the future would also become the main protagonists of his stories.
Taniguchi’s so-called ‘hard-boiled’ period began in 1976, when he met the artist and writer Natsuo Sekikawa, who wrote noir-tinged stories set against a backdrop of sex, violence and vice. Taniguchi worked with Sekikawa on Trouble is My Business, which describes an alcoholic detective, abandoned by his wife and daughter, grappling with criminals in Tokyo’s seediest suburbs. This was followed by Tokyo Killers, another hard-boiled story written with Sekikawa in which he experimented a great deal with both direction and colours.
At this point, Taniguchi’s style was still ‘rough and ready’, in line with the stories of violence he was telling and illustrating, and had not reached full maturity.
The 1980s: his first work as an author
Taniguchi continued to work on thrillers in the 1980s, most notably Blue Fighter, written by Marley Caribu, who is best known for the work Old Boy (a manga series that also spawned a popular film). Blue Fighter is a highly complex tale derived from Japanese new-wave art and the street protests that were taking place in that period. The star of the comic is an alcoholic boxer, and the artist’s style, while still a little rough around the edges, nevertheless shows a lot of promise.
The turning point came in 1984 with Blanca, Taniguchi’s first complete work as both author and cartoonist. It tells the story of a genetically modified dog en route to Alaska, pursued by the army, which wants to turn it into a deadly weapon. The violence, relentless action and extremely ‘free’ compositional style of the panels reveal an evolution in Taniguchi’s approach. The comic also contains splash pages, including some displaying very graphic violence, in a style that contrasts markedly with his future work. The power of nature takes centre stage on numerous occasions, with magnificent mountain backdrops. It is Taniguchi’s first real masterpiece, showcasing the strength of his feelings against a background of violence and terrible injustice.
In 1987, Jiro worked with Sekikawa once more to produce The Times of Botchan, undoubtedly the most complicated project he ever worked on. It narrates the life of an important Japanese novelist, Natsuke Soseki, who lived during the Meiji era (1868–1912) and describes this historical period, during which Japan gradually opened itself up to the world, with great accuracy.
It was this work that saw Taniguchi settle on his signature style, in which all superfluous elements are removed from the drawings and their layout on the page. His pen strokes are cleaner, with a balanced composition and easier-to-read images. The artist also makes great use of white space, which contrasts with the greys and blacks to form poetic and striking images. The Times of Botchan was hugely successful, and in 1998 won the prestigious Osamu Tezuka Award.
In 1988, as the decade was drawing to a close, Taniguchi produced his first piece of science fiction, Ice Age Chronicle of the Earth.
The 1990s: The Walking Man
In 1990, Taniguchi published a new work of his own, where he acted as both scriptwriter and cartoonist: The Walking Man, which became one of his most famous works.
After years of producing action-packed, blood-soaked stories, Taniguchi now decided to usher in a ‘gentler’ style. The Walking Man tells the tale of an average man simply going for a walk around his small town. There is virtually no dialogue: instead the reader sees this man observing things, interacting with other people and going about his everyday life. Significant space is given to his extremely detailed and precise surroundings, along with onomatopoeia that allows the reader to literally ‘hear’ the situations as they unfold.
Despite the simplicity of its narrative, this genuinely revolutionary and wide-ranging work shows Taniguchi’s artistic prowess at its peak. Everything flows serenely and without any stress, in stark contrast to the life Taniguchi was living in Tokyo, with his urgent deadlines and almost all-consuming workload. From an artistic perspective, the expert use of screen tones and occasional colour, precise perspective and the construction of simple yet technically complex images elevated the author to the level of a genuine global comic master.
The Walking Man also led to Taniguchi being discovered in Europe. The Japanese mangaka had actually been reading European comics since the 1970s, including the works of the French master cartoonist Moebius, with whom he would collaborate later on.
Other works that Taniguchi released this decade were The Elm and Other Stories from 1993, a story of family and neighbourhood relations focused on a debate over whether or not to cut down a tree, and Raising a Dog and Other Stories, a moving story about a man who loses his dog that offers an in-depth analysis of the relationship between man and beast.
Then there was Gourmet, written by Masayuku Kusumi: another ‘story without a story’ starring a classic Japanese salaryman whom the reader follows through his culinary adventures. The protagonist analyses and samples the dishes, but also observes other people, the cleanliness of the restaurant and the managers’ various exploits.
In 1994, Taniguchi went back to working on his own with one of his finest and most touching books, A Journal of My Father. Although it is not strictly autobiographical, it was inspired by a visit to the author’s hometown of Tottori after a fifteen year absence. The star of the story returns home after learning of his father’s death, followed by flashbacks from his childhood. This simple story is recounted with masterly drawings that reveal the characters’ full range of expressions.
The 2000s: European comics
Taniguchi was a rather unusual mangaka in that he studied European comics in great detail. They had a clear influence on his own art, both in their anatomy and the composition of the pages.
In 2000 he began a partnership with Moebius, and together they produced Icaro, a sci-fi comic packed with this genre’s favourite topics: genetic experimentation, evil governments controlling lab-made superhumans, plenty of action and violence. Due to poor sales the work was never completed, but it was nevertheless a successful experiment: the drawings are incredible, and Moebius is as visionary as ever.
Taniguchi published another masterpiece during this period: The Summit of the Gods, which focuses on the relationship between humans and nature, and specifically the mountains. He also tried his hand at a western comic with Skyhawk and explored a romance between a teacher and his former student in Sweet Years.
The author won countless prizes, including the Gran Guinigi Master of Comics Award at Lucca Comics 2010. In 2011 he was even knighted as a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French state.
Jiro Taniguchi’s legacy
The artist died in 2017, at the age of just 69, while working on The Thousand-Year-Old Forest, which unfortunately he never completed. The works we have mentioned in this article are only a small fraction of Jiro Taniguchi’s output, much of which is still unknown in the UK. His final story was Guardians of the Louvre, set in the famous museum in Paris.
Jiro Taniguchi is unanimously considered to have been an extraordinary artist who left behind an enormous global legacy. His distinctive style and reflective storytelling grabbed the attention of readers all over the world, taking them on exciting journeys.
His manga revealed the full extent of his mastery and explored universal themes like love, solitude and nature, as well as embracing a wide range of genres: from thrillers and westerns to science fiction and tales of everyday life. His style and approach to storytelling have inspired countless artists, and will undoubtedly continue to do so for a long time to come.