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From „MORESUKINE“© Dirk Schwieger

Marie Schröer on "Moresukine: Wöchentlich aus Tokyo"
Oubapo in Tokyo

If the term ‘graphic travelogue’ had been coined for one particular book, then for Dirk Schwieger’s collection of episodes – Moresukine: Uploaded Weekly from Tokyo. The country and people featured in the work do not serve primarily as a setting for autobiographical explorations, for romantic or adventure novels, but are firmly on center stage.

The slim book offers impressions of Tokyo in particular, and of Japanese (popular) culture in general. However, this is not a traditional carnet de voyage (French for the genre of the graphic travel journal, so popular in France), a collection of sketches, anecdotes, and bon mots loosely strung together. While the conventional representatives of this genre are often aesthetically pleasing, informative, and entertaining, rarely are they particularly imaginative.

This is definitely not the case with Moresukine. Published by Reprodukt in 2007, the book is based on an interactive comic blog of the same name (and this, in turn, on sketches from the legendary eponymous notebook known as ‘moleskin’). From January to July 2006 Schwieger filled the notebook with 24 Slice of Life, or better, Slice of Surprise episodes dealing with his life in Tokyo.

Slice of Surprise

What’s so special about it? Schwieger’s explorations are not driven by personal interests or impulses, but by the assignments posted on his blog by his followers. On 2nd January 2006, he posted the following invitation from Tokyo (in comic form): ‘Maybe you have heard of a place I should go to, or you know a person I should (try to) meet up with, or you’re just interested in a topic that’s somehow related to my new home town. […] And I will DO it, no questions asked, and whether I like it or not.’

The offer, which is made at the start of Moresukine should highlight just how much Schwieger’s collection stands apart from traditional graphic travelogues. The author does not follow his personal interests but is commissioned to be a seeker cum visitor who explores cultural phenomena and legendary places for others. A week after completing a mission, he posts a report on his blog for all to see – in comic book form.

Although Schwieger’s version of the carnet is not lacking in the integral components of travel such as drifting, or, more importantly, in this case, engaging, this openness is not translated into impulsive drawings but into carefully composed strips (with a touch of underground aesthetic), and is reflected in the fact that Schwieger does not follow a freewheeling style based on personal preferences.

In a conversation with the author, it becomes clear that there is more than one reason for this innovative version of a travelogue:  firstly, as an author, he operates perforce from the “position of a white western male”. Yet the perspective broadens as he fulfills assignments set by a range of different clients. Otherwise, he would not necessarily have visited many of these places.

Now, with his help, other users also have an opportunity to discover the ‘coveted city of Neo Tokyo’ and to compare imaginary pictures with reality. He all but becomes an avatar, helping stay-at-homes in satisfying their curiosity and in realising their missions.

The computer game metaphor is no coincidence but is the second key driver of his narrative style. Schwieger explicitly mentions Japanese games culture as inspiration for the project. It is then only logical for agreements on all missions to be virtual. One of the most recent tasks, says Schwieger, was to travel to Cambodia and to continue the project there. But he didn’t consider it. The entire project, he says, was tailored to Japanese culture.

But we can still harbour slight hopes of a continuation: he does not rule out fulfilling the remaining (specifically Japan-related) missions at some point in time, “in my old age”.

Oubapo in Tokyo

When I tell him that this approach reminds me greatly of the ‘Oubapists’, he immediately knows what I am talking about. To explain: ‘Oubapo’ stands for Ouvroir de Bande Dessinée Potentielle (workshop of potential comic book art) and was founded in 1992 as comic book counterpart to ‘Oulipo’ (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or workshop of potential literature). Oubapo’s aim (as with the patron Oulipo) is to explore options of art forms with the help of self-imposed restrictions. These can be formal in nature (e.g. designing a comic book in which the text changes, but not the drawing in the panel) or can be content-related (e.g. the challenge of drawing a comic book about three arbitrarily chosen objects).

In other words, only when rules are agreed in advance can spaces open up for exploring the hitherto hidden potential inherent in graphic novels, and to inspire hitherto unthought-of new material. When an author like Schwieger agrees to take up this challenge “with no questions asked”, he does not have a finished comic book at the back of his mind, but embarks on a new journey each and every time. That the computer-game dynamic also resonates as subtext, makes his approach twice as playful.

Natto, Para Para and the “ornamental use of the Roman script”

Having described the comic book and gaming reflexive superstructure, we should at least partially disclose just where the playful approach adopted in Moresukine takes us. The 24 stages are extremely varied, sometimes the subject is the focus and sometimes the place. Together with the author, the reader marvels at the imposing landscape around Tokyo (Mount Takao); visits scurrilous non-places (Love Hotel, Capsule Hotel, Telephone Club), special museums (Studio Ghibli Museum, Origami Museum); tries different types of sushi, natto (fermented soya beans, first-timers might need some getting used to) and blowfish (fugu). Readers learn something about Japanese expressions, extravagant dances (Para Para trance dancing), and cosplay. The book is not only extremely informative but also highly entertaining.

For instance, when requested to research Japanese fashion preferences, Schwieger writes over a three-part panel on which different Metro passengers can be seen: “Women sometimes wear white, men never. Unsettling for a European, but an everyday sight: armbands and protective masks. And of course, there is still the purely ornamental use of the Roman script.”

That 15 years later the face mask has also become part of daily life in Europe, is a side note; I mention this scene for different reasons. The drawing that accompanies the last sentence shows an older lady wearing a perfectly knotted scarf, stern glasses, an overlong skirt, and a pullover that says ‘Toodrunktoo f***.’ In short: the comic book is funny.

Thanks, not only to the per se already lopsided stories, but also to the dynamic interaction between drawing and text (integral to a good comic book) which sometimes seems to cause a clash of inspiring moments. The site architecture of each episode is adapted to the respective content. The pages are peppered with original graphic ideas. In this respect: Moresukine is an absolute must for Japan fans, but also for comic book lovers. And it proves very clearly that carnet de voyage is not the same as carnet de voyage. 

Moresukine: Wöchentlich aus Tokyo, Dirk Schwieger. Paperback, 160 pages. Publisher: Reprodukt.
ISBN: 9783938511435. 24,00 EUR