guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

March 2006

Kate T. Williamson, A Year in Japan (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006). $19.95.

by Vanessa Raney

At first glance I thought Kate T. Williamson’s unpaginated book, A Year in Japan, was a graphic novel (defined more by length and plot structure than other criteria) in the tradition of travelogues like Guy DeLisle’s Pyongyang: A Journal in North Korea (2005), Henry (Yoshitaka) Kiyama’s The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904-1924 (2005; 1998), Josh Neufeld’s A few perfect hours…and Other Stories From Southern Asia & Central Europe (2004), Ted Rall’s To Afghanistan and Back (2002), and Seth Tobocman’s Portraits of Israelis & Palestinians for my Parents (2003). These self-focused narratives about the travelers’ experiences to other countries stand in distinction to the other-centric perspective evident in the comics of Joe Sacco and other artists working in the tradition of comics journalism. But Williamson’s book is categorized by its publishers as an “art book.”

A Year in Japan is image-heavy, but when compared against traditional art books, its size and also Williamson’s style of drawing (though the images include wonderful and evocative watercolor portraits) do not easily fit the category. And text is a vital element of the narrative. Not all art books look the same, but in many of them, captions that define the art process (i.e., oil painting) are used to identify the artwork. Even in museum exhibitions where definitions might be absent, the descriptions next to the arts object (photography, sculpture, etc.) usually attribute a year and/or descriptive content below the title.

In Williamson’s book, few of the pictures are named. Those titled, however, tend toward imagery of fruits and plants (“persimmono (kaki),” “maple leaves (momiji),” “plum blossoms (ume no hana),” “peach blossoms (momo no hana)” “cherry blossoms (sakura),” “banana leaves,” and “hydrangea (ajisai)”), or natural landscapes (“Meoto-Iwa (the Wedded Rocks), Futami-ga-Ura,” “Nanzen-ji Temple, Kyoto,” and “bamboo lounge, Futami-ga-Ura,”). Most of these artful depictions share a relationship to the text of Williamson’s Japanese sojourn (including “washi (paper)”), except for one, titled “Nicely nicely Johnson,” which shows either a woman or a man with feminine facial features. Though s/he appears to be an official, perhaps affiliated with one of the trains that Williamson took on her journey, Williamson does not define her/his relevance.

Of her watercolor portraits, the one with the crescent moon against a dark blue sky intruded on by the skeletons of trees, which extends the lyricism of Minamoto Nobuakira’s poem—“If only I could show them to someone who knows,/This moon, these flowers, this night that should not be wasted” (translation taken from
Gosensh? 103 in Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, [Vintage Books, 1990])—is the closest, I feel, to the consciousness of Japanese culture. Looking to Japan’s rich art history, especially with its intertextual use of image and poetry to define and expand the other, Williamson succeeds in this one image in showing herself, as the song says, “turning Japanese.”

To really appreciate her artwork, however, we need to step away from the “art book” categorization and consider them as illustrations. As an illustrator, Williamson shows her skill in being able to—both generally and subliminally—capture an essence of Japanese society. Yet, my disappointment with
A Year in Japan concerns the use of text as descriptive rather than reflective of her experiences in Japan. At its weakest, it reads as an illustrated guide to things Japanese. Yet I am still tempted to define A Year in Japan as a graphic novel because its textual elements do sometimes manage to escape the limitations of description and to offer us some insight into Williamson as a person, which helps to situate her vision of Japan. Even so, for readers unfamiliar with Japanese culture or attuned more to Western stereotypes of Japan, Williamson’s book offers a glimpse into Japanese society that is not always observed in the media.