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Times of Botchan Review

The Times of Botchan, Volumes 1 and 2 (1987)
by Jiro Taniguchi and Natsuo Sekikawa
Fanfare/Ponent Mon, 2005
126-142 pages, $19.99 each.

The Times of Botchan is a historical fiction series based on the life of Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki, one of the major Japanese writers of the early Twentieth Century. What makes this series more interesting than the average biography, is how much the series is also about the time period, as the title indicates. Straying from just a story about Soseki, the series takes a broader look–through a number of characters–at the latter half of what is called the Meiji Period (the book starts in the 38th year of the period, which is equivalent to our 1905), during which the Japanese were struggling with the influence of the West on their culture.

The story begins with Natsume Soseki, a professor of literature, who, after having spent two years studying in London two years earlier, is both slightly paranoid and neurotic. Like many of his contemporaries, he is anti-Western but must still deal with Western influence, in his case, teaching English at a high school as supplemental income. He has been writing an ongoing serial called I Am a Cat (available as a very large volume in translation), based on his observations of a tom cat that stays at his home. As the story in this manga unfolds, he plans and writes a novel which he calls Botchan, about a young man named Botchan struggling to retain his traditional Japanese identity in an increasingly Westernized Japan.

These two volumes focus not only on Soseki, but also on a disparate group of young men he meets in a beer hall (itself a place where West meets East, beer being a recent introduction to Japan at that time). After a drunken brawl (partially started by Soseki’s inability to hold his liquor, partially due to the political talk of the others), they all spend the night in jail and then become friends, visiting together at Soseki’s home. Soseki’s relationship with these young men helps shape his novel as he hears of their lives and struggles.

The story is filled with historical figures (most unfamiliar to Westerners), events, and information. Often these elements are subordinate, intertwined with Soseki and his friends’ lives, but other times these elements take on a more prominent role, not always in a way that is directly relevant to the main story. These elements weave a tapestry of life in Soseki’s Japan. The wandering storyline allows a filling in of context and relationships that allow a better view of the times than any one character’s story could. This wandering can be a bit disorienting, particularly on first reading, but once one becomes accustomed to these shifts, they enrich the story.

The book has a tendency to switch from the reality of the historical fiction to the reality of Soseki’s novel-in-progress. This causes some confusion because Soseki puts people from his life into the novel as characters. This effective technique interestingly shows how Soseki mixes his world with the world of his novel but requires much attention by the reader.

The books use an unconventionally large amount of narration for a manga. The narrative voice is in the third person omniscient, gives names and details on characters, and provides historical information, such as background on money and personal economics.

Jiro Taniguchi’s artwork has a realist style that suits the historical setting of the story. His attention to detail in backgrounds and characters (clothes, hair, expression) brings the time period to life in a way that might not be required in a familiar contemporary setting where the reader can better fill in the details with personal experience and observation. Like in his The Walking Man, Taniguchi’s art makes us see. He draws cats with an amazing amount of reality and detail that nicely mirrors Soseki’s observations of cats in his writing.

(Sample pages from the book can be found at the publisher’s website (click on the little arrow at the bottom right of the page to see more, and remember to read right to left).)

On my first reading of both of these volumes, I was often confused by characters and names. There are a proliferation of characters who appear and reappear or just appear once, making it occasionally difficult to remember who is who. Each character is given a first name, last name, and a nickname, and each name may be used to refer to the character.

These volumes pay with rereading, as one becomes clearer on the characters and the tapestry of stories. The stories within stories blend to create not only an entertaining story but also an educational one about people dealing with rapidly changing times.

According to the publisher’s website, this is a ten volume series. I look forward to the future volumes. The Times of Botchan is unique in English translated manga, and I highly recommend it.