Thursday, November 24, 2011

Book 36 - Tokyo On Foot: A Graphic Memoir

By Florent Chavouet

This was one of those rare impulsive purchases when I was at Drawn & Quarterly. Though I didn’t have any luck finding a birthday gift for a friend, I had no trouble spotting something I wanted for myself, as my eye was immediately drawn to the cover of Tokyo On Foot, the last English copy in the store (the original version is in French).

Having visited Japan over a decade ago, leafing through Chavouet’s images evoked warm, fuzzy feelings of that memorable trip, hence the impulsive purchase. This was also the book I sought solace in when I wanted to momentarily escape from exploring the human capacity for war and violence in Three Day Road.

Chavouet is a French graphic artist who moved to Japan with his girlfriend when she landed a one year internship at an unnamed company. The more accurate title would have been "Tokyo By Bike". When Chavouet wasn’t trying to find the odd job as a French waiter, he'd bike to an unexplored area of Tokyo with his portable chair, stopping to sketch something interesting.

His subjects range from random people on the street who’d stop and check out what he’s drawing to a run-down house that stuck out like a sore thumb across the street, or maybe a jumbled view of shops and noodle houses within a city block, or a secluded spot in a park away from the urban hullabaloo.

The hand-drawn maps of each neighbourhood (21 in total) are amazingly intricate, yet useful if you were to use the maps to trace his daily route. Each chapter begins with a map of the district or prefecture with highlights of the various spots where he stops to capture the scenery. Each highlight has a page number so you can find the sketch of what took his fancy and sometimes there are charming little captions or annotations to explain what he observed.

Reading some reviews on Goodreads, there were a few complaints how the book is only an outsider’s superficial interpretation of Tokyo, and Chavouet never learned more than a few Japanese phrases. Well, yeah, the guy did only spend a year there. He’s an illustrator, not a scholar or journalist. I felt that part of the appeal was that his drawings are exactly that, a view from an outsider’s perspective. Chavouet’s art contains a mixture of curiosity, interest, amusement, bemusement and/or mild dislocation. Perhaps his interpretations are not always accurate, but they seem genuine in feeling.

I also really enjoyed his profiles of random people’s fashion styles on the street, such as this cross-section of Shibuya:

Here’s a review which pretty much explains more articulately how I felt about it.

And this blog gives a good idea of what it's like flipping through Tokyo On Foot.

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