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Friday, March 13, 2015

Tokyo On Foot - A Book Review

Bonjour, mon nom est Andrew Joseph, et, bien que je ne suis pas un critique de livre professionnel, je ai été invité à donner mon avis d'un livre de Tuttle Publishing, appelé Tokyo on Foot.

Hello, my name is Andrew Joseph, and, although I am not a professional book reviewer, I have been asked to give my opinion of a book from Tuttle Publishing, called Tokyo on Foot.

So what's up with the French? Well, I am a lover of their fries and toast, and not-so-strangely, many of their women over the years, but really, it's in honor of the book's author... or artist... a gentleman (I assume) named Florent Chavouet, who spent six months in Tokyo and managed to have enough material to produce a stunning expose on Tokyo's underbelly... the good, the bad and the ugly part of Tokyo... but mostly it's about Tokyo and its neighborhoods during the day - a look at the ordinary.

I'm going to call him by his first name—Florent—came to Japan not to work as a bartender or teach English as I think almost everyone assumes one does as a foreigner to Japan... but rather he did so to accompany his girlfriend who was working there on a six-month contract.

While I might assume it was to keep his eye on his girlfriend, Florent seems to spend the majority of his time wandering the streets and neighborhoods of Tokyo, drawing things. Things I, as a seasoned Japanophile (it doesn't mean I like Asian kids), never even noticed while I was there. It's not the mundane, by any stretch of the imagination... rather, it's one of the most interesting and intriguing looks at Japan I have ever had the privilege of seeing.

Florent, armed with pencil crayons and a budget of under ¥1000 ($10) a day, spends his days pedaling around the neighborhoods of what he calls the world's ugliest city—Tokyo—and draws beauty from the ugliness.

Creating a pencil crayon map of each neighborhood - pretty well detailed, I might add - he does 10-page chapters, give or take, on various neighborhoods, showing beautiful buildings or signage, or the strange and wonderful people who walk past his doodling self, writing pithy and amusing comments about nearly all of them…

Hmm, I should state that the buildings and signage aren't actually walking past them, despite the life Florent brings to each. That was just my poor English.

The art moves seamlessly between sort of being detailed and realistic to detailed and cartoony, but it's not simplistic. I mean... every person Florent depicted in his drawings… yeah… I've seen him or her in Japan… variations of, of course. But the buildings * whew * Florent is a talented artist.

Florent, by the way, with maybe two errors on all the work, has created the graphic book in English. I'm sure they have already been spotted by the powers that be, so I'll shut up about it in case you don't spot them.

But English?! It's why I felt obligated to at least use the services of Google Translate in his honor.

As mentioned, those neighborhood maps contain numbers… denoting the page number of the drawings… a handy way for anyone visiting Tokyo to get the general area of where these objets d'art are…

My ONLY knock on the whole book (maybe I have two), is that the ONE apartment building Florent drew on Page 83—a fantastic piece of architectural know-how—that building wasn't listed on his maps. I just know that it's in Ueno somewhere.

What the heck was Florent sitting in when he drew this wonderful drawing on page 83 of Tokyo On Foot?

I have NO idea if this building has a special name or not, but dammit, I want to know. If anyone out there has that information, please pass it along to me! I think I'm going to try and build this one out of my LEGO. Is it just me, but does it look like a concrete pagoda - five levels plus a cap and all?!

My other negative critique of the book: It ended. I was extremely disappointed to come to the end of it, and despite being a solid 206 pages, I wanted more. That's not much of a negative critique, is it?

Someone should send Florent's girlfriend back to Japan for another six months—maybe to Osaka, another city I personally thought was ugly.

Florent's work was inspiring in that it showed ME that I need not create yet another encyclopedia of Japan, showing people the same boring stuff of temples, temples and more temples.

Florent, in a mere 206 pages, managed to show me that side of Tokyo I longed to see… the uglier, simpler side of it… the one not obscured by skyscrapers… Despite Florent's artistic talents, Tokyo is still ugly—as most large cities built in the 20th century are.

Florent takes the time to introduce each chapter with a drawing of a koban (a police box or small police station), with police officers performing mundane tasks, such as providing directions to weird-looking people (not always foreigners), inflating bicycle tires, or just goofing around smacking wads of paper with their baton. The drawings humanize them, turning them from frozen passages in time to living, breathing examples of what Tokyo is all about.

His multiple drawings showing variations on Japanese transport in the city are also wonderful. Expecting a subway train? Me, too. Not there. Expecting Tokyo Tower? Not there. Expecting Godzilla - no, actually, but he's there… mostly because Florent found a statue of Godzilla in a park.

Hidden Tokyo… that's what Florent has uncovered.

While I was in Japan, some 100 kilometers north of Tokyo, I visited the place maybe 15 times over my 36-month stay.

Honestly… all I know about the place is that there are a lot of skyscrapers… the place is expensive… individual living space is at a premium and is small… there are a lot of people… lots of cars… a plethora of subway lines and subway riders… lots of dance clubs… lots of hot women… lots of doofus guys trying to look cool… idiotic fashions… lots of malls… lots of noise… lots of smog… lots of neon… and when you can't see neon, you are out of downtown Tokyo…

To me… as a suburbanite of Toronto, Tokyo was just Toronto on steroids… just bigger, meaner, and uglier. No big whoop.

But… thanks to Florent… I realize I only saw a small part of Tokyo… and I am extremely envious of him, but thankful that through his wonderful artwork that I got the chance to see what he saw.

Tokyo on Foot by Florent Chavouet and published by Tuttle Publishing is a fresh take on an old city.

If you have an interest in Japan, Tokyo on Foot is a must read. Really. It makes me want to go and visit Tokyo… and I hated Tokyo when I lived in Japan.

Tokyo on Foot... even though I got my copy as a comp, I'd pay for it any day. Yeah... it's just that good.

I noticed that there are two versions of the book - the standard Tuttle Publishing paperback, with thick paperboard cover.

And a version on Kindle.

It's weird, looking on-line, I noticed that on some book-selling sites, that the US Kindle edition is $3 cheaper than the Canadian version (not so weird); but that the U.S. paperback was actually $0.60 cents more expensive than the Canadian version. That NEVER happens - even when we the Canadian dollar was higher than the Yankee buck a couple of years ago. Canadians kept getting the shaft from the all-mighty U.S. establishments. I'm sure this is an error, and will be corrected by the proper powers moments before you (the reader) discover it. 

You can do as you wish, and can call me old-fashioned all you like, but there is something special about that tactile feel of paper on the fingertips that let's you know you are alive. It could be the papercuts, though I have NOT had one of those in 20 years... probably because I'm no longer handling as much paper in my daily life as I used to. My odds of a papercut remain the same, but I just haven't handled the requisite amount of paper to achieve the baseline.

Besides... you can really see the art with the paperback version!

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Santé, Florent… kanpai,
Andrew Joseph

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