Tokyo Is My Garden
Created by: Frédéric Boilet, Benoit Peeters, Jirô Taniguchi
Published by: Fanfare/Ponent Mon
ISBN: 8496427072 (Amazon)
To say something is one’s garden is to say that the thing is known like the back of one’s hand. It’s to presume a sort of easy familiarity, the kind that brings to mind a warm comfortability or provokes a sense of native intimacy. To a person who could say “Tokyo is my garden,” the culture, language, people, and geography of that city must be known in a manner that surpasses mere acquaintance. To such a person, Tokyo itself must be family. For that person to be a Westerner? Well, that plays into a host of Western male fantasies and is therefore ripe for thought experiments and criticism.
Successful integration into Japanese society has at least for a few decades been an idle dream for many Caucasian Western males. The fantasy carries some of the romance of the early twentieth century ex-pats who made their beds in Europe and mixes liberally with the exoticism of a historically rich culture that remains, at best, only vaguely understood in the West. Throw in whatever mythologies surround the concept of geisha (for a demure yet ferocious sexuality mixed with what appears to many Caucasians to be an exotic kind of ageless beauty) and then add in the various honour codes associated with bushido and samurai ways. Stew these with a collection of visual delights from across the ages—sumi-e paintings, views of Mount Fuji, manga, anime, kanji, yukatas—and you’ve crafted something irresistibly delectable to a very particular kind of man. This is a recognizable social fantasy and there are off-colour* terms like “yellow fever” for a reason.
I myself, as a youngster, thought that nothing would be cooler than moving to Japan, embracing the culture, and being readily able to partake in life in that country. I would, of course, live in Tokyo. That was in junior high and I didn’t have in mind Rivers Cuomo’s fabled half-Asian cellist or any sort of erotic/romantic conquest. I just wanted to be where Nintendo games came out years before my American friends would get them. I was a man of simple pleasures. With age and wisdom, I began to realize that successful integration into such a foreign culture wouldn’t be any facile sort of experience (this is expanded upon in my review of Love As a Foreign Language). My grasp on reality was too firm for my dream to survive. It’s probably a good thing that I hadn’t read Tokyo Is My Garden while I was still young: I might have fooled myself into believing I could easily adapt to Tokyo life by simply possessing an earnest appreciation for kanji.
That’s how it is for David Martin, Tokyo Is My Garden's protagonist. The people he works with at a fish market shout out his name in welcome. He wows Tokyoites with a knowledge of kanji that is daunting even to natives. He knows where all the best night spots are. And though he might have just been thrown out of his girlfriend’s apartment (she was a model), he’s quickly picked up a new one (a slick business professional who might as well be a model). He may have troubles, but none of them have to do with his reception by the people of Japan.
Playing to type, David’s one constant thorn relates to his own native land. Generally, the Westerner who dreams of exotic success in Japan is someone whose life in the West isn’t panning out glamourously. It’s like the kind of dorky kid in junior high who’s not even in the running for being considered popular—he imagines that if he’d only move to a new school, that’d be his big chance to rewrite his fortunes. When that kid grows up a little, he’ll recognize that just changing schools isn’t enough. He’ll need to go somewhere where his novelty won’t wear off in the space of a single day. He’ll need to go somewhere where he’ll naturally stand out. And if he’s white, then Japan is a natural destination candidate. Sure, he could go to Kenya, but he’s a little bit uncomfortable with all those black people. He could go to Peru, but he doesn’t remember seeing any Peruvian comics that go out of their way to show off teenagers’ panties, so… Japan it is. I mean, fraught with biases and misconceptions as he is, it might as well be Japan—which he doesn’t actually understand any better than he does Kenya or Peru or even his own high school’s cultural pool. And he’ll be fine so long as his old school doesn’t come back to haunt him.
David is haunted by his real job and the ostensible reason he’s in Tokyo to begin with. He’s a sales rep for a small French firm that produces brandy. He’s been in Tokyo for three years, supposedly learning the lay of the land and preparing contacts and hocking the company wares. Only: he’s really only majored in girls, parties, and studying kanji. His boss is set to arrive in three weeks to evaluate his performance and he has yet to sell a single bottle of the product. He’s worried that his dream could vanish, that his celebrity could be left behind while he’s dragged back to France. It’s a hard-knock life.
While Tokyo Is My Garden is the story of what will happen to David and how on earth will he pull out of this scrape, it’s also the story of a dream. This book is the compiled navigation charts for a group fantasy. David is kind of really completely obnoxious in that he’s living the life so many nerdy young white males would drain the blood of virgins for—and worse, he deserves it as much as they do. He’s kind of losery, kind of a bum, kind of not the kind of person you’d expect to be rolling in models. Unless you’re the very particular kind of person who could find Boilet and Peeters’ story remotely believable.
It’s a strange mix. Boilet has made it his goal to produce nothing that is not taken from reality. As we saw in Yukiko’s Spinach, his images are drawn from video footage. His poses are realistic and his figures are believably proportioned. And yet, his story must take place in a dreamworld. David Martin is the envy of Tokyo and he does nothing to merit that goodwill save learn the language. It’s preposterous. Then again Boilet, who is a cartoonist and not a rockstar, takes video of all sorts of things that the average joe probably couldn’t imagine taping. All for his drawings, sure, but nonetheless: if a cartoonist can experience that degree of worldly hoo-hah, then perhaps David Martin’s story isn’t so wholly unbelievable after all. Score one for the white and nerdy.
In any case, up until the halfway point, I was ready to think mediocre thoughts of the book. David did nothing for me, I didn’t find his position very plausible, and I couldn’t be concerned to know that his three years of fraud might be found out. I was, plainly, not invested in his problems. Then, strangely, I began to warm to his plight. With the arrival of his boss, I found myself taken in, charmed by this guy and his life. David never approached becoming a charismatic figure for me, but I did find that I came to care for him. Perhaps out of pity. Perhaps out of a sense of lost romanticism. I can’t say whether my newfound good feeling toward Tokyo Is My Garden was due the creators’ efforts or wholly some chemistry lodged internally within my heart. The end of the matter was that I enjoyed the book and was happy to have read it. How others will take to it, I cannot begin to know. I can only say that I thought it a good book—in the end.
** Boilet does this interesting thing that I hadn’t caught on to until late in the game.
It’s not a big thing, but I thought I’d alert you to the technique early, so you won’t have to puzzle over it like I did.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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