A Mountain of Glass and Steel
After falling in love with Jiro Taniguchi’s art on the brilliant The Times of Botchan, I was interested in checking out some of his solo work. He is a beautiful artist, but can he write?
At 334 pages “The Quest for the Missing Girl” is a heavy book, both in size and content. The pace is more like a novel or a modern Clint Eastwood flick than a comic, moving forward with a slow determination towards the inevitable climax. Taniguchi tackles social issues affecting Japan, be it from the loss of attachment to nature, to the demands of society over personal passion, to teenage prostitution, all wrapped within a gripping and heroic narrative.
The missing girl of the title is Megumi, a 15-year old Tokyo girl who didn’t come home one day. In a panic, Megumi’s mother calls Shiga, a solid mountain man who lives his life as far away from Tokyo as possible. Once upon a time, Shiga was best friends and climbing partners with a man named Sakamoto. Both men were in love with a woman named Yoriko, whose only condition for marriage was that her husband gives up the mountains to be with her. Shiga’s passion for mountains was too great, but Sakamoto accepted. However, after marriage and Megumi’s birth, Sakamoto wanted one last climb to the Himalayas. Shiga refused to partner with him, and Sakamoto died. Shiga, full of guilt, swore to watch over Megumi and protect her.
So when Megumi goes missing, Shiga comes down from the mountains and into the wilds of urban Tokyo, as the proverbial stranger in a strange land. Shiga is more accustomed to the direct dangers of mountain climbing, and lacks the skills necessary to navigate lying wealthy businessmen and the underworld where young girls are rented by the hour. But he is a dogged pursuer, and follows the trail towards Megumi even when it leads to conclusions he would have never thought possible. The men and girls of Tokyo are unbalanced as well, not able to deal with a man who cannot be bought and does not give up. There is a last mountain that Shiga must climb, but steel and glass is much more slippery than the honest earth he is accustomed to.
I found “The Quest for the Missing Girl” to be a gripping read. Tanigushi has crafted a perfect noir detective story, moving down from the mountains, through the labyrinthine streets of Tokyo and finally back up to the world of skyscrapers and privilege. I have read a lot of modern Japanese detective novels, and I would put “The Quest for the Missing Girl” up there with any of them.
Shiga’s an interesting character; pure like the nature he loves but haunted by past failures as well as his own middle-age. In Tokyo he is completely out of his element but the same willpower that drags him up mountains pushes him through the story. I loved the subtle emotion Taniguchi brought to the story as well. You can feel Shiga’s sense of loss with Megumi, seeing what he gave up because he would not give up his personal passion. The scenes with Megumi’s mother Yoriko and with Megumi’s friend Maki are especially touching. Maki is a cynical street kid, but breaks down wondering why no one cares about her as much as Shiga cares about Megumi.
Action-wise, it is rare that a comic has me on the edge of my seat. I usually only get that out of seeing a movie. I don’t want to give anything away, but the final scene was an absolute page-flipper that had me literally holding my breath. The realism Taniguchi brings to his art gives the scenes a much greater impact than more cartoony styles.
Needless to say, I loved “The Quest for the Missing Girl” and will be checking out more of Taniguchi’s work. Great stuff.