Review: Tokyo Is My Garden

cover_lit.jpgTokyo Is My Garden
By Benoit Peeters and Frederik Boilet, with Jiro Taniguchi
$18.99, 152 pages
Published by Fanfare/Ponent Mon

Brigid at Mangablog called me out regarding my appreciation for Tokyo Is My Garden, a 2007 release by Fanfare Ponent-Mon and, like most of their releases, doomed to obscurity for some reason. Well I didn’t take her up on her challenge due to my blogging time being cut short as of late, so she just kicked me in the butt and posted her own, very balanced, review of Tokyo Is My Garden. I have a little bit of time on my hands while at work (hurrah for dinner-breaks) so I figured I’d link to Brigid, but also talk a little bit about why I enjoyed the book so much.

First though, I want to complain about Iron Chef America, on The Food Network.

Despite loving show host Alton Brown and being happy to see fellow Canuck Kevin Brauch on the screen, I find the whole thing to be so much lesser than its Japanese counterpart and originator. It’s considerably more crass, with less of a sense of humour or pagentry, making up for it with bitchy reality TV nonsense. The worst part though, the part that just grates on me when I watch it, are the judges and their inability to be anything but literal and low-minded when it comes to their duties. The role of the judges is to determine how well the chefs articulate the theme ingredient in their dishes, but the most common and common complaint of the judges is that “I can’t taste the theme ingredient!” If it’s bacon then the dish isn’t bacony enough; fish isn’t fishy enough; leeks are “overpowered” by the other flavours. Admittedly some judges are worse about this than others, but for the most part, the judges seem to believe that the only way to articulate an ingredient is by having the dish scream out that flavour above all others.

Where’s the subtlety? What about articulating the theme ingredient through… I dunno, the texture, like the real Iron Chefs do (wherefore art though, Kenichi-sama?). Or in the subtle melding of flavours? Or just for colour? Is the only facet of cuisine the purest and brightest essence of what its cheif ingredient? Or is food subtle, layered, and surprising? The answer is the latter of course, because if it weren’t, than the Jones Soda Turkey-flavoured holiday soda would be available all year round! Everyone likes turkey, why wouldn’t they want it concentrated in carbonated form, right? Because there are other facets to eating, and to enjoying a meal obviously. But try telling that to an Iron Chef America judge. Dicks.

Right! So, why did I enjoy Tokyo Is My Garden so much? For its sweetness, its sense of place articulated by its lovely art. Because it is a story of young love where the challenges the lovers face are internal. Early on in the book, the characters talk about “sad French novels” and the book is quite conscious of being a sad French graphic novel throughout, brilliantly turning those expectations on their head through a number of plot contrivances that evoke the classic romantic comedies of the 1940s through the 1960s. A happy ending and the sort of gentle redemption that comes from the various characters’ gentle transgressions. It reminds me a lot of the work of Dupuy & Berberian actually, a sort of upper-middle class existence in a fabulous city, where the characters tribulations are largely due to their personality quirks and their fears and inadequacies. It’s a fantastic change of pace from the melodrama of most manga (let alone most commercial graphic novels). A smart, funny, romantic romantic comedy.

But, the plot! There isn’t enough plot! I understand Brigid’s criticisms, that the plot is ‘thin’ but I don’t agree (obviously). Rather, the plot is thick enough. The plot doesn’t need to scream at you, in my opinion, for a book to work. What is the best way to articulate the themes and aims of your story? Sometimes it isn’t a bold, bright, forthright “flavour,” but rather subtlety. Sometimes it is the texture of the relationships, simple clues about how people interact (the lead and his French boss, the lead and his girlfriend, the boss and the rest of Japan) that generates the friction that drives the story forward. The colour! The interplay! Were this story a contemporary manga (rather than nouvelle manga, as the author calls it) I feel that it would be told quite differently, the stakes much higher and the action more intense! If it were published in North America I feel it might read exactly like one of those terrible 100 page “film treatments masquerading as a graphic novel”. If it were a film made today, I feel like it might end up exactly like the sort of uninspired tripe that A.O. Scott talks about in his review for this weekend’s “Fool’s Gold.” (Thanks to David for the link). Instead, we have a delightful hybrid French/Japanese graphic novel that, when I put it down, I feel great about having read. A book that I made my husband read and he similarly enjoyed. A book that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to you. That’s not to say that I don’t understand why it felt a bit flat for some reviewers, I do, but I think it comes down to the expectations of story that you bring with you to the table. It may be why Dupuy & Berberian’s Get A Life and Maybe Later didn’t set the blogosphere on fire either…

I think that if I’d never seen Iron Chef in its original Japanese incarnation, I’d be far more charitable to its American sequel. But I know that there’s a show out there that is just more enjoyable, where the judges have a greater and more nuanced appreciation of food, and it makes it hard to watch Mo Fucking Rocca blather on and on about nothing, only present to resuscitate his own failing career. Likewise, I think I appreciate the light touch of Tokyo Is My Garden, the gentle appreciation of a beautiful city, a beautiful young romance, and the cultural differences that separate and ultimately unite us.

– Christopher

5 thoughts on “Review: Tokyo Is My Garden”

  1. I, too, loved TOKYO IS MY GARDEN and recommend it highly. Some of my friends continue to resist these Fanfare books. They don’t know what they’re missing.

  2. Pwned! Chris, I thought I had waited a safe amount of time and that you weren’t going to write a review that was orders of magnitude better than mine. You win.

    You’re right about my expectations of the story. The thing that felt flattest to me was the beginning of the romance, when Kimie goes from anonymous character in the room to David’s lover. I want to see a process of discovery, maybe even a bit of tension, between the time two people meet and the time they become lovers. Here, I have no idea what attracted them to each other. It got more interesting after that, although as I said in my review, not interesting enough for me. I guess I expect more conflict. Maybe I have been reading too much shoujo manga.

    Anyway, thanks for inspiring me to finish the review. Now I can start working on the other 1,137 books in my stack.

  3. Sorry, I didn’t mean to “pwn” you, I just really liked it 🙂

    As for how they became attracted to one another, you’ve never heard of love at first sight? 🙂

    – Chris

  4. Chris, thanks for finally sharing your thoughts. I think I agree with your sentiments in general, though I still think the work has some serious flaws that prevent me from enjoying it to the extent that you have.

    As for Get A Life, I think one of the things that may have killed that is the people who are likely to have been excited about it had already been exposed to the later volumes through D&Q #3 and #4.

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