An absolutely brilliant historical/biographical comic
Botchan is my favorite work of Japanese literature. Funny, insightful, at times both light-hearted and mournful, it is a perfect novel. Still completely relevant today, “Botchan” is the one book that I recommend everyone read before moving to Japan in order to learn the culture. The author, Natsume Soseki, is considered one of the greatest authors of Japan, and in was featured on the thousand-yen note for years.
When I saw Jiro Taniguchi and Natsuo Sekikawa’s “The times of Botchan,” I originally thought that it was going to be a manga adaptation of the famous novel. But it is so much more.
While I love “Botchan,” I have never thought too much about the writing of “Botchan,” of the story behind the story. I have never thought about the process behind Soseki’s writing of the novel, so different from his works like I Am a Cat and Kokoro. That is the story that Taniguchi and Sekikawa explore in their comic “The times of Botchan.”
Volume one opens with Soseki sitting on his front porch, staying at his famous stray cat, and contemplating a new novel. Soseki was feeling caught in the Meiji era, and time when Japan was transforming from one kind of nation to another, achieving technological advances in weeks what had taken other countries centuries. The nation was emerging from the two hundred and fifty year period of isolation known as the Edo period, and was in a full-fledged identity crisis. The clash of the old and new, of tradition and innovation, of country and city, of Eastern and Western, all of this Soseki sought somehow to embody in his short comic novel.
To help process his ideas, and just to be social, Soseki meets with a group of young writers who wish to study at his footsteps. In “The times of Botchan,” Soseki wanders the streets of Tokyo with these young writers, taking a little something from each of their personalities that will eventually end up as a character in his book.
Do you need to have read “Botchan” to appreciate “The times of Botchan?” I don’t think so. Aside from Soseki’s musings the story doesn’t delve too deeply into the events of the novel. It would help to have at least a familiarity with Meiji period Japanese literature, as many of the characters are famous names from that time. Ogai Mori (Vita Sexualis) is a character, as is a personal favorite of mine Lafcadio Hearn (Kwaidan) and there is a great scene where Soseki reacts to the news that his return from London has pushed Hearn out of his professorship with Tokyo University as the pressure to expel foreign influences grows.
I thought Taniguchi and Sekikawa’s “The times of Botchan” was just brilliant. Everything about the book, from the art style to the pacing to the subject matter are far removed from what is typically thought of as “manga.” Jiro Taniguchi’s art is highly detailed, sometimes being drawn from famous photographs that I recognize, yet with an obvious influence of Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) in the facial expressions of his characters.
What was originally supposed to be a short two-volume collaboration between Taniguchi and Sekikawa, “The times of Botchan” blossomed into a ten-volume series that goes beyond the titular novel and into an exploration of literature in the ever-changing Meiji period. Frankly, I can’t wait to read the rest of the series, and it is no wonder that publisher FanFare / Ponent Mon received an impressive seven Eisner Award nominations in 2010. This is high-quality literate comics.