Sporadic Sequential
Thursday, August 09, 2007
The Times of Botchan

Just to show that I do read more than manga featuring teens who battle supernatural forces, I thought I'd spend some time looking at some other books I've read recently. Here's the first entry in what I hope will be a recurring feature over the next few weeks.

The Times of Botchan is a great, quirky read. There's not much of a plot (unless you consider "neurotic author with semi-xenophobic attitudes sits around and describes the book he's planning on writing to his slacker friends similarly disaffected by Japan's transition to Western-inspired customs during the Meiji period" a meaty plot*), but that's more than made up for by the delightfully oddball cast of characters and intriguing observations about tradition and culture.

In his review, Chris Mautner argues that Botchan will mean more for those who already have some familiarity with the Meiji era, but I found myself enjoying the book a great deal despite having no knowledge of the historical period. Personally, I came away from reading the first volume with a desire to learn more about this fascinating time during Japan's past. While I can agree that a Meiji scholar would get even more from this book than I did, I think the themes of societal change / cultural upheaval and people's different reactions to those shifts are pretty universal (and fairly timely, given our own country's struggles with immigration, outsourcing, and other "global economy" issues).

This is the closest the book has to a psychic nosebleed incident.

Plus, there's the artwork by Jiro Taniguchi a wonderful blend of detailed realism and expressive cartooning (especially his faces), which alone is worth the price of admission. Yes, these books are pricey (the series is projected to run ten volumes, at $20 a slender pop), but Fanfare/Ponent Mon does a wonderful job with the production values: the cover is sturdy with end flaps; the paper stock is high quality with a slightly yellow tone to it (a nice touch given the historical subject matter); and the book features plenty of helpful footnotes plus a short background essay at the end.

Other reviews: Katherine Dacey-Tsuei gave the first three volumes of Botchan an overall grade of A-. Joey Manley thought the book was marred by a bad translation. (The examples he cites didn't bother me, as they struck me as oddities of speech that could happen in actual casual conversation among friends.) Derik Badman felt the book rewards multiple readings, so it received a "highly recommended" rating from him. Finally, Tom Spurgeon listed it as #10 out of his Top 50 Comics for 2006, describing it as "one of the best comics ever and one of the most uniquely told, with sterling craft and precision," and apparently that high praise was based on not even reading the whole book.

* OK, granted, put that way, it does sound like a meaty premise, but still not much happens plot-wise. I mean, for a manga, there are hardly any sword fights / telekenetic duels / alien invasions.

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