Hats off to The Beguiling for putting this little number into my hands, something they picked up on a recent trip to Japan because it looked interesting. The only condition was that I figure out who it was by. Which was a tiny bit of a Google challenge since strangely, there was no phonetic spelling of the author’s name on the copyright page, standard Japanese publishing practice.
So Osamu Kanno! Turns out he was one of the Garo crowd in the ‘70s. Not much of a surprise after reading the book. The first sentence (after three pages of wordless art) grabbed me and pinned me down: “I don’t know whether the man who first saw an elephant was overwhelmed by its immense size, or if he was worried for his family.” And the book itself is immense and overwhelming. And ambitious.
In Zo o Mita Otoko (The Man Who Saw an Elephant), Kanno weaves the loose story of a man losing his wife and child into grander concepts of journeys and meaning and life and death. And yes, that sounds pretentious as hell, and I suppose that in a way it is. But with his art and his words, he creates such an emotional connection with the reader, even when you’re not exactly sure what it is you’re connecting with.
The art is alternately awkward and gorgeous, sometimes reminding me of the faces my junior high students used to draw in their textbooks and other times punching me in the head with calligraphic beauty. In one particularly astonishing part that I keep going back to, he spray paints the image of a human being in motion on the page with a stencil, so that the space around the person is filled in and the person himself is blank. The man leaps into the air, and then falls to earth, first with wings and then without.
Kanno also makes good use of collage, putting together newspaper and magazine images of life in Japan, burning buildings, elephants and electrical towers in thoughtful juxtaposition, and placing lines of printed text over top. Kanno is not afraid to mix styles and throw disparate elements into the images on the page, and given the disjointed and loosely linear nature of the story he’s telling, it works only too well. When, on the day of his wife and child’s funeral, the narrator explains that his mother should have died three years ago, but instead she continues to live on the second floor of his house, the art moves from straightforward representations in pen with printed narration, to narration in calligraphy accompanied by a portrait of the narrator that is almost traditional Japanese brush painting, to the mother as demon with spray-painted ghosts and overlaid with calligraphy.
The narration, with only the most tenuous grasp of linearity to begin with, loses it completely in the second half of the book as Kanno pushes further into the darkness of his protagonist. We get images—a girl in the ocean, a rooster, red lips parted, a toy meant for the lost child—a journey through the protagonist’s memory perhaps. And here Kanno makes ever greater use of the brush style, complete with calligraphy, creating haunting images of shipwrecks, children, the nape of a neck, all so replete with sorrow. Lest the reader miss that point, the artist is quick to insist on it, placing the words “Sad people!!” over an image of several people on a raft in an expansive and dark ocean.
So many times while reading Zo o Mita Otoko, I had to put the book down to digest. Even after I finished, I kept going back to it, flipping to this or that image, staring and trying to figure it out, drink it in. There’s something very immediate for me about Kanno’s style and it’s a something that I’m having a hard time putting into words. Probably because I am coming from the world of words with/without pictures and Kanno is giving the reader this treat from the world of pictures with words. It’s a world that I don’t understand as well as I’d like to, but even so, this book manages to push through my word bias and offer me something unexpected.