The Walking Man (Aruku Hito) is a 1998 manga by Jiro Taniguchi. Though it isn't my first experience of Taniguchi's style and storytelling prowess, I would suggest this little story is a great place to start within Taniguchi's body of work, not only for veteran fans, but also to a non-traditional audience of graphic novels.
The Walking Man starts with a middle-aged salary-man's walk after missing the train one day. In a moment of serendipity, he goes for a walk around the neighbourhood; later he takes long walks alone or with his dog. Often wordless, the manga is carried by Taniguchi's meticulous reproduction of the everyday and masterful sense of paneling. The pages flow like a meandering river as our salary-man's curiosity is piqued and his admiration of the world, both natural and urban, is tangible. Great pleasure is taken in every drawing, as Taniguchi's sense of beauty is without prejudice; the same amount of attention is given to a budding leaf as to the steel bamboo shoots of telephone poles; from the breeze rippling on a pond to the texture of a jumper.
Taniguchi's art style is the first aspect of The Walking Man to be immediately apparent. Taniguchi is of the more realistic school than many of his manga contemporaries: his people look like people, and the scenes rendering are unfantastic in concept if not in attention to detail. There is one particular panel several chapters in, when, after climbing a tree to reach a child's toy caught in the branches, the man leans back on a branch for a moment and admires the neighbourhood spread out before him: every roof has its particular pattern of tiles, the streets lined with grass verges, the trees and wildlife sprawling beyond to the sky; while the man's rolled-up shirt sleeves crease and every branch on the almost-bare tree is visible. Nothing in the scene competes but each detail adds to the next one in a pleasant harmony and exceptional clarity.
The translation is sparse, and only a few sentences are spoken in the entire manga. Occasionally our salary-man talks to his wife, his dog or the people he meets, but nothing he says is particularly profound. This is in the spirit of "mono no aware" (the pathos of things), a distinctly Japanese theme best expressed through director Yasujiro Ozu's oft-used phrase "Fine weather, isn't it?" at the emotional climax of his films. Whereas mono no aware is often tinged with melancholy, The Walking Man is the opposite, full of the simple joys of life, rather like the Japanese phrase "ikigai": a reason to get up in the morning. Gentle impressions of Shintoism are felt throughout, a traditional Japanese spirituality concerned with the essences of nature. While such concepts may seem alien when defined using borrowed words, they are universal concepts and feelings, like the joy of playing in puddles after a storm or walking barefoot in the grass.
As a one-shot manga, The Walking Man lasts only a few chapters before coming to a gentle close, and we see our salary-man's neighbourhood through several seasons, in every weather, and various circumstances. For me, it lasted a lot longer than those fleeting 160 pages.
The Walking Man is a mellow pearl of a story, ideal for those who enjoy slightly more mature offerings than the average comic book. As a story, it is simple; as art, it is effective, but when both of these come together in Jiro Taniguchi's effortless and beautiful way, this manga creates, and leaves to linger, an exceptional sense of peace. Truly breath of fresh air.
Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Ponent Mon, S.L. (30 Sep 2004)