I’ve used the lockdown to catch up on some big books.
Not Ulysses, Crime and Punishment or Moby Dick – to hell with that. More books that are so physically large that I don’t want to lug them around on my daily commute, whenever that happens again.
Japanese Notebooks by Igort has been sat staring at me from my book shelf for a year. In truth, it was so beautiful that I’d been saving it for when I could spare the time to do it justice. It is essentially a volume of observations by the author, focussing on his time working with Japanese Manga publishers in during the nineties. Igort is an artist and writer from Italy but had become intoxicated with Japan even before he arrived in 1991. I can identify with the feeling, even if I can’t articulate it as well as Igort (though I did attempt it here).
Visually set out like the eponymous notebook, Igort tells of the difficulties of being accepted as a Manga artist in Japan, having written Yuri, a successful regular publication about a young astronaut which sold a staggering 1.4m copies every week. The book touches on the stylistic differences between western graphic novels and Manga, whilst delving into sections on Japanese art and culture. These focus on, amongst others, Mishima and gangster movie maker Seijun Suzuki. The latter started off making B-movies and his style resonated with Igort who had started off in a similar vein with his Amore series. Suzuki’s style was at odds with his producer bosses and his career died out not long after his commercial peak “Branded to Kill”.
His influence has lived on though violent shootouts and cool settings of John Woo and Quentin Tarentino’s movies. Igort became similarly obsessed and spent hours wandering old video stores who were constantly surprised in a gaijin’s interest in such an obscure auteur.
Along with more mainstream obsessions such as martial arts, zen gardens and sumo, Igort also writes about Sada Abe. Born into a family of Tatami mat makers, the family fell apart and Sada was sold to a geisha house, not long after being raped as a 14 year old. Seen as being very low in the pecking order, partly due to her lack of patience for studying the geisha’s trade, she eventually ended up working as a prostitute (a distinctly different trade to a geisha, despite western stereotypes).
Abe ended up working as a waitress in Tokyo and fell in with the restaurant owner, a womaniser called Kichizo Ishida. Their relationship was highly sexual and ended up become more extreme and obsessive, involving strangulation. In May 1936, Abe wrapped her obi belt around her lover’s neck and strangled him whilst he slept. She lay with his body for a while before cutting off his penis and testicles and taking them with her on a small road trip. By this time, news of the murder was out of and Japanese panic went into overdrive. There were alleged sightings of Abe, who was hanging out an inn and enjoying trips to the movies, her lover’s tackle tucked in her handbag.
Eventually she was arrested, tried and sentenced to just six years in prison. The sentence was relatively light to reflect the victim’s perceived consent to the dangerous sexual games that they played. Out after five, she wrote her memoirs and became a notorious celebrity. When asked why she killed her lover and mutilated him, she declared:
Because I couldn’t take his head or body with me. I wanted to take the part of him that brought back to me the most vivid memories.
Igort’s handling of the Abe Incident as it became known is depicted beautifully. The book is a feast for the eyes with double and full page illustrations presented in gorgeous pastels and watercolours, as well as the usual comic book style of manga and western graphic novels.
The final section of the book focuses on Hokusai, who conjured up the famous iconic great wave. Igort identifies with Hokusai’s attention to detail, frustrated about his wood block carver’s inability to get the noses and ears as he wished. He includes Hokusai’s last words, where he says that he hopes that by the time he passes his hundredth birthday:
Perhaps I will have truly reached the dimension of the divine and marvellous. When I am one hundred and ten, even just a dot or a line will be endowed with their own lives.
I’m not one for revisiting books but this is a keeper, one that I’ll keep going back to. Its beauty is stunning and subtle, some of the pages working as standalone pieces of art. I’m yet to check out any more of Igort’s other work. He is still writing and drawing and has written in a similar format about the two years he spent in Russia and the Ukraine.
I’ll be definitely checking it out. In the meantime, you can buy Japanese Notebooks from the wonderful Gosh comics here.
More graphic novels coming up soon.