MANGA SANS FRONTIERES

Comic ambassadors

by Rob Gilhooly

A rather naive man decides to nip off to Hokkaido to enjoy the Sapporo Snow Festival without booking a place to stay. Wandering the snowy streets, he eventually comes across a solution to his problem — a love hotel.

This is a scene from the manga “Love Hotel,” and the man, of course, is a foreign visitor. However, his depiction is not the work of a condescending Japanese manga-ka but a sympathetic Frenchman, Tokyo-based Frederic Boilet.

“Love Hotel,” Boilet’s first work on Japan to be published in his own country (in 1994), was an attempt to break down some of the stereotypes about Japan that many French had at that time, he says. “The theme is a Frenchman discovering the real Japan,” says Boilet, who spent six weeks in Japan researching for that manga in the summer of ’91. “At that time, images of Japan were still very backward in France — kimono, yakuza, robots, that kind of thing. Few people had any idea about the everyday, human side of Japanese life.”

Boilet has since written numerous manga here. “Tokyo est mon jardin (Tokyo Is My Garden),” which was published in France by Casterman in 1997 and released in Japanese a year later, titled “Tokyo wa boku no niwa,” is written with a similar objective to his earlier work, only this time from the perspective of a Frenchman living in Japan. He has also penned work that is solely for Japanese readers, including contributions to weeklies such as Big Comic Extra and Manga Erotics.

His style has been labeled “nouvelle manga” due to its depiction of fleeting, slice-of-life pastiches somewhat reminiscent of the “nouvelle vague” movies produced in France during the 1960s, which the 41-year-old Boilet admits greatly influenced his work. Yet, Boilet said it is not a style that has really caught on in the world of bande dessinee, or BD (French manga).

“French manga have increasingly targeted younger people. They are mostly sci-fi, superhero or action comics,” Boilet says. “I, too, have written such manga, but for a long time I wanted to write BD that depicted episodes of everyday scenes, something similar in style to many French movies.”

So, with Japanese manga rapidly carving a niche in France, Tokyo seemed like the perfect place for Boilet to base his manga and try out this style. “When I came here, I discovered that unlike the Japanese manga gaining popularity in France, such as ‘Akira,’ there were manga here employing that kind of style. It was a strange, but not unpleasant paradox to encounter.”

He admits that over the years he has been gradually influenced by Japanese manga, and has collaborated with Japanese manga-ka in some of his work. Indeed, compared with his previous works, which maintain a strongly European flavor, his later works seem more simplified, concentrating not on artistic detail so much as artistic style and content. He insists, though, that he has striven to maintain the French flavor of his early works.

“My work has been called ‘nouvelle manga’ because of its blend of BD and Japanese manga. . . . In attempting to bring to life Japanese everyday life for French people, I have somehow also managed to create a genre that not only mixes cultures but mixes up a cultural form that has a long history in both countries.”

Boilet’s work and Japanese manga popularized during a surge in the popularity of manga that started in the late 1980s have had a huge influence on French comic writers over the past decade, according to illustrator and fellow Frenchman Martin Faynot.

Faynot, 27, has used manga as a key to understanding Japan and to help him form an illustrating style he hopes to bring here from early next year. “Since the arrival of ‘Akira’ in France more than a decade ago, you really notice the difference in the styles of many young French manga-ka,” he said on a recent visit to Japan. “I also have found my style changing, my illustrations becoming more simplified, less detailed and much sharper.”

Facial features in his drawings have become more exaggerated — eyes bigger, jaws more angular — while the use of “speed lines,” common in Japanese manga, has become a favorite technique.

Faynot, who has been working as an illustrator for seven years in his hometown of Toulouse, said that it was through Japanese manga that he discovered “behind all the neon and Sony Walkmans, there was a country and a people.”

“I was amazed by the sheer variety of themes in Japanese manga, and it was through this that I started learning about the culture and everyday lives of the people,” he said.

“I was also stunned by the reality of it all and decided I would like to use that as a base of my own work. I think to come here and gain an audience would be the ultimate challenge.”

It would seem that the seasoned manga-ka Boilet is also still rising to the challenge. In one of his more recent works, “Une belle Manga d’Amour,” his French protaganist shows a new Japanese girlfriend a sample of a manga to which he has been asked to contribute. “The artists’ drawings are really good, don’t you think?” he asks, leafing through the pages. “I’m gonna have to get my act together.”