For the last several decades, animation - and the related world of graphic novels and manga - have been the last refuge of fine draftsmanship. Put the top artists from Disney or Pixar or DreamWorks in a life class with most pricey gallery painters from the Soho galleries, and the animators would eat the painters' lunch, dinner and breakfast, then come back for their snacks. If Jeff Koontz could draw like Glen Keane or Paul Felix or Dice Tsutsumi, he wouldn't have to cast inflatable toys in steel.
I wouldn't want to try to pick the top draftsman working in animation today, but I have no qualms about saying Takehiko Inoue eclipses everyone else currently drawing manga and graphic novels.
Inoue's work has always represented a fusion of Eastern and Western artistic traditions. His ability to render the human form in any position and from any angle harks back to the Renaissance masters, while his brushwork and compositions evoke classic Japanese aesthetics. His latest book Pepita: Inoue Meets Gaudi (Viz: $24.99, 108 pp.) marries those traditions even more closely.
Inoue first encountered Gaudi's work in 1992, when he attended the Barcelona Olympics. He regarded the great, unfinished cathedral of the Sagrada Familia "the way you’d look at scenery printed on a postcard," and dismissed it as "deformed" and "extravagant." Nineteen years later, Inoue returned to Barcelona to experience more of Gaudi’s work first hand, and was awed by its power and organic beauty. Pepita is compilation of Inoue's notes, sketches and impressions.
Inoue recounts the key events in Gaudi's life as he visits various buildings the architect created. He observesthe hills, rocks, trees of the Catalan landscape, and grasps how Gaudi's work reflects that world, which resonates with the celebration of the nature in Japanese art.
After looking at the mosaics in the facades of Gaudi's buildings, Inoue invokes them in fragmented water colors of lizards, fish and sea turtles. In a similarly playful spirit, he adds cartoon elements to photographs of Barcelona. He juxtaposes these light-hearted moments with more serious reflections, sketching buildings, drawings his impressions of old photos, etc. His water colors of trees and mountains offer an homage to Gaudi's spirit of observation, abstraction and stylization.
By the end of Pepita, the reader realizes that Inoue's initial impression was partially correct. Gaudi's work is extravagant, but in the best sense of word, an exceptional generosity of spirit.
The pairing of Gaudi's art nouveau-inflected architecture and Inoue’s contemporary manga drawings seems incongruous at first, but it reflects Inoue’s predilection for unlikely subject matter.
His first manga, Slam Dunk chronicles the semi-comic misadventures of Shohoku High freshman bad boy Hanamichi Sakuragi. When Hanamichi meets pretty Haruko Akagi, he falls for her like a gym bag full of rocks. Haruko adores basketball, so Hanamichi joins the team--even though he's never shot a basket in his life. He manages to offend both the team captain--Haruko's older brother--and the school’s rising superstar before the first practice begins. The Slam Dunk manga sold more than 100 million books worldwide; the animated series ran for over 100 episodes, and spawned theatrical and TV movies.
The often comic images of Slam Dunk - Hanamichi tripping and accidentally pulling down the team captain's trunks - gave way to powerful pen and brush lines that showcase Inoue’s draftsmanship in his subsequent series, Real and Vagabond.
Unlike their counterparts in the determinedly wholesome world of American mainstream comics, the teen-agers in Real face graver problems than will Archie ask Betty or Veronica to the dance. Kiyoharu was set to become the top junior high sprinter in Japan; then his right leg was partially amputated due to osteosarcoma. After a bicycle accident, Hisanobu, the arrogant captain of the Nishi High basketball team, woke up in the hospital a week later with no feeling below the waist. Hisanobu's former teammate Tomomi saw his life fall apart when a girl he'd just met was injured in a motorcycle accident. All three young men enter the specialized sport of wheelchair basketball.
Kiyoharu refuses to be limited by the loss of his leg, and remains a fierce competitor. But he retains a touching vulnerability. After drinking his first beer, Kiyoharu drops his warm-up pants and stands in front of his friends in a T-shirt and boxers, revealing his prosthesis. He tearfully confesses that his father used to cheer his track victories, but "...with my leg like this... he won't even look directly at me."
The strong, clear lines capture Kiyoharu's intensity when he breaks down or sizes up a situation during a game. After Tomomi hurts his hand in a fight, Inoue draws the swollen knuckles so convincingly, the reader winces.
Inoue's elegant pen and brush lines capture the power, beauty and horror of the bloody duels. When Musashi fights Inshun, a young monk who is the master of fighting with a pole similar to a Western quarterstaff, Inoue shows the moves each combatant executes--and their concentration in the face of a formidable opponent. Even when he draws a close-up of a foot touching the ground, the reader senses the weight of the entire body and the intention behind that step.
It's not surprising that Inoue, who's always gone his own way, would be drawn to the highly individual work of Gaudi. It will be interesting to see how the vision of the Catalan master influences subsequent volumes of Real and Inoue’s future projects.