Japanese Notebooks by Igort“If you write and draw, you just need a pen and a notebook. And a good pair of shoes.” Attributed to Anton Chekhov, this idea flows throughout Japanese Notebooks, a graphic novel from the artist known simply as Igort. With equal parts journal, multi-media scrapbook and existential musings, the book succeeds as both a captivating memoir and meditation on Japanese culture.

Thanks to a chance meeting with a representative from the Tokyo-based manga publisher Kodansha, Igort had the opportunity to experience the grueling life of a manga creator first hand through a scholarship that allowed him to work and live in Tokyo for six months during the early ’90s. His time spent there forms the foundation for Japanese Notebooks. Whether visiting a Shinto shrine, connecting with renowned manga creators like Yoshiro Tatsumi and Jiro Taniguchi, or contemplating apparent contradictions in Japanese culture such as its long traditions of both violent war and peaceful meditation; Igort reveals a multi-layered Japan that often lies just beyond his grasp as he tries to capture it through text and image. In the words of the artist himself, “This book is the story of chasing a dream, and surrendering upon finding that dreams cannot be grasped.”

This quest for meaning is a solitary one, and Igort conveys his isolation visually through multipaneled frames that often feature a lone figure engulfed by his surroundings. I was struck by the emptiness of such spaces, especially the almost vacant Tokyo streets and public buildings that should be brimming with the hustle and bustle of large city life. Igort’s choice of color palette also parallels the action and emotion within the storyline, with bold primary colors adding intensity to illustrations and photographs of troubling societal issues while soft tans, greens and yellows convey the calm of the natural world. In other instances, the switch to a monochromatic color scheme effectively demarcates sub-narratives and samplings of other work. Different stylistic renderings, ranging from noir to cinematic to more traditional Japanese artistry, further differentiate story threads and flashbacks. Igort also showcases his versatility through realistic sketches that capture intimate portraits of the people he meets and the historical figures he studies while in Japan.

For readers interested in gaining a behind-the-scenes perspective of manga and graphic novel production, Igort provides insight into the amount of work and commitment required, examples of ground-breaking artists and the methods they use to create their craft. The inclusion of editorial critiques also serve as great instructional tidbits for aspiring writers and illustrators to absorb. Of course, Igort does not always follow the rules, instead pushing the format’s boundaries. I appreciated the subtle humor behind his decision to place a frame in which his editor advises him to use text sparingly near subsequent text-heavy pages. And it works.

Because the graphic novel contains nudity and addresses violent topics such as rape and murder, it is more appropriate for older audiences. Igort treats all subject matter sensitively, and recommendations to younger readers should be made on a case-by-case basis for those interested in graphic novel creation, the manga industry, and Japanese culture or history. The opportunity to explore a multi-layered Japan, as well as Igort’s personal experiences and insights, make for a worthwhile and enlightening read.

Japanese Notebooks: A Journey to the Empire of Signs
by Igort
ISBN: 9781452158709
Chronicle Books LLC, 2017

  • Johanna

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! Johanna Nelson is a full-time graduate student pursuing her MLIS at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Through her studies, she discovered a love for the graphic novel format thanks to the likes of Raina Telgemeier and Art Spiegelman. While the two may seem like opposite ends of the spectrum, both masterfully combine narrative and picture to create a compelling, rich story greater than the parts alone. As an aspiring school librarian, who will soon be on the path to teacher greatness through dual certification in education and library media specialization, Johanna also loves to explore the seemingly endless possibilities graphic novels hold when it comes to teaching and building literacy skills, helping English language learners, reaching out to reluctant readers and matching each and every kiddo with just the right book thanks to the wide range of subject matter available in this format. Prior to leading the “glamorous” life of a toiling student, Johanna served as features editor for a cheese and dairy trade newspaper that helped to cultivate her writing skills as well as her love for deliciously unique artisan cheeses – triple cream anyone? She also has held several library positions including page and library specialist in the children’s department of a public library. In her free time, she enjoys embracing her inner nerd through watching Jeopardy!, doing crossword and jigsaw puzzles, bird watching, hiking, sketching, and of course, reading whatever she can get her hands on.

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