Although I love his work, I don't know much about the person that is Jiro Taniguchi. I don't know how much of "A Zoo in Winter", a story of a young manga artist finding his inspiration, is autobiographical, semi-autobiographical, or just plain fiction. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. Because true or not, "A Zoo in Winter" (a direct translation of the Japanese title "Fuyu no Dobutsuen"), is an fantastic, touching comic book.
The story begins in 1966, with a young man named Hamaguchi working for a small fabric wholesaler. Hamaguchi has dreams of being a designer, but all he gets is grunt work. After the boss's daughter uses him as a cover for her elopement, Hamaguchi leaves Kyoto for Tokyo, and a job as an assistant to a popular manga artist. An assistant's life is also grunt work, coloring in whites and blacks, doing background detail and toner, but Hamaguchi finds himself drawn into the lifestyle. Like all of the assistants, Hamaguchi has aspirations of publishing his own comic, but with his uneventful life, he finds he has nothing to write about. He can drawn beautifully, but he has no experience. An artist named Kikuchi decides to show Hamaguchi the dark side of life, saying "You need to experience a whole load of stuff to write powerful manga," but it isn't until Hamaguchi meets Mariko that he finally gets his inspiration. Mariko is sick and physically weak, but her enthusiasm and love are exactly what Hamaguchi needed.
Taniguchi is one of the most versatile artists I know. He can create ultra-masculine, adrenaline surging works like "The Summit of the Gods" and "The Ice Wanderer", and then with the same hand produce sensitive and romantic works like "A Distant Neighborhood". If there is a common thread to his writing it is that his stories are all firmly about human beings. Whether scaling a mountain or overcoming their own emotional captivity, Taniguchi's characters are fully-realized and emotionally connected.
"A Zoo in Winter" falls firmly in the "sensitive and romantic" camp. Whether Hamaguchi is a personal avatar or not, he represents the fear of reaching out for a dream with full knowledge that the end result is most likely failure. While at the fabric factory, he has no initiative of his own, and his life is directed by those around him. When circumstances land him in Tokyo working as a manga assistant, his first impulse is to just fall into a comfortable zone, without taking risks or following his own dreams. He watches others reach out and fail, before understanding that it is the trying, not the succeeding, that is important. And especially with Mariko, whose poor health almost guarantees a bitter ending to their romance, Hamaguchi refuses to give up, taking what time he has with her.
His art, of course, is phenomenal. Taniguchi has a distinct, realistic style that is still recognizable as "manga." He forgoes any impressionism, and creates ridiculously detailed backgrounds for his characters to move in. There is a reason why Taniguchi is a multiple-Eisner award nominee.
At 231 pages, "A Zoo in Winter" is long enough to tell a complete story, but still leave us hanging on the final page wanting more. The ballad of Hamaguchi and Mariko doesn't quite finish, and it is up to the reader to speculate on whether their ending is happy or melancholy. On the final page Hamaguchi musses that it would be nice if real life were as easy to plot out and conclude as a manga, but that real life is more complicated. I wonder if that is the message Taniguchi wanted to send as well.