The Quest for the Missing Girl
Story and art by Jiro Taniguchi
Translated by Shizuka Shimoyama & Elizabeth Tiernan
Jiro Taniguchi is an artist that I find baffling. As much as I respect him as a top-rate storyteller and draftsman, his actual work frequently leaves me cold — or rather, colder than intended). Taniguchi's latest release from Fanfare/Ponent mon is no exception, filled with some wonderful examples of craft but ultimately so stoic and restrained that it borders on dull.
The Quest for the Missing Girl is actually a very apt title, in that the story is a quest in the traditional sense — less a mystery to be solved than a series of ordeals to be endured, where the prize to be won is of secondary importance to the the moral and spiritual enlightenment achieved during the journey. While our protagonist, Shiga, may be trying to locate a kidnapped child in Tokyo's seamy (but oddly sexless) underworld, the real meat of the story involves Shiga coming to grips with the guilt he feels for not accompanying his best friend on a mountaineering years ago, a jealous and cowardly refusal that may have led to his friend's untimely death. It makes for an interesting character study, but the actual plot is so simple and straightforward that it sometimes fails to hold your interest.
Quest is also a typical wilderness survival story — man vs. self (as embodied by some unconquerable aspect of nature) — with a strange and hostile city standing in for a remote wilderness environment. The substitition is made all too clear in the climax, where the Tokyo skyscraper Shiga plans to climb is likened to the Himalayan mountain that he left his friend to climb alone. It's strange choice from a storytelling perspective, because this is one of the rare moments where Taniguchi's typical understatement would be more effective than drawing our attention to the obvious parallels. It doesn't completely dull the impact of the book's final chapters, but it does blunt it quite a bit.
Anyway, for all my kvetching, Quest is still an entertaining read with some masterful storytelling, and here's one of my favorite sequences. This is from the end of chapter 3 — Shiga is relentlessly working the only lead he has when he runs afoul of some punks and is forced to resort to fisticuffs. It's an encounter that normally plays against Taniguchi's natural qualities as a draftsman, but he still manages to hit it out of the park by emphasizing his strengths as a storyteller.
I really don't have much to say about these pages — I only include them because they have the first two panels of the fight scene, and because they show how Taniguchi's fight scene choreography contrasts from his usual storytelling style. Note how he's using some techniques I've discussed before, like allowing the initial and terminal panel borders to bleed off the page to create visual link to the page turn. And of course, in the lower left hand he switches from his regular right-angle panel borders to diagonal panel borders, and in any comic that can only mean one thing — it's on.
Of course, the punk misses and strikes the case of beer next to Shiga. This is a weird panel, but it's a microcosm of the whole sequence. The overall composition isn't inherently exciting, the figures aren't dramatically foreshortened, and his lines are as unsparingly controlled as ever. And yet Taniguchi uses a few simple tricks — off-kilter cropping, slightly skewed camera angles, looser inking in the black areas, speed lines, and diagonal panel borders — to create the illusion of action without without wildly deviationg from his usual stiff style.
Our eyes are led through the rest of the right-hand page by a series of well-spotted black areas — Shiga's hair, tie and shoes; the leather jacket worn by one of the punks; the slight shadows under the cases of beer. Also note the way that the speed lines are kept away from Shiga's eyes in the first panel, making them the focal point as well as creating a funnel from the top tier to the tier below.
Also note that the diagonal panel borders, in addition to adding a little excitement and chaos to Taniguchi's otherwise rigid grid, also separate simultaneous or near-simultaneous moments in time. The punk missing Shiga and a wide shot of the same. Shiga swiveling around and hitting the punk in the face. The punk hitting the ground while his buddies look on in shock. Shiga's thousand-yard-stare and the gang's craven reaction to same.
And that face. This is one of the few extreme close-ups Taniguchi allows himself, as well as one of the largest (and darkest) panels in Quest. As usual, Taniguchi's restraint in using those techniques pays off in spades, giving the panel much greater dramatic weight than it would normally have because of its unusual nature. Its sheer size, its darkness, the unusual level of hatching, and even the slight inclination of Shiga's eyebrows all combine to hammer home one singular message — this is someone you don't want to f with.
And of course it works. The punks back off, their cowardice emphasized by the sloping top border of the next tier which makes the panel focusing on them actually seem slight next to the adjacent (but smaller) panel containing shiga. Body language also plays a role here, as Shiga is stoically rigid but thrust forward while the punks are loosely controlled and cringing backwards. Shiga's panel is also heavily toned and simple, allowing it to leech some of the dramatic weight from its upstairs neighbor, while the punks are bleached almost white and full of busy linework, making them seem somewhat insignificant.
It's a great scene, and one so exciting and impactful that you almost forget that takes about two seconds and only two punches are thrown.