KANTA ON MANGA / Blacksad dazzles with top-rate illustrations

©EUROMANGA L.L.C. © DARGAUD 2000, by Canales, Guarnido © DARGAUD 2010, by Canales & Guarnido, © DARGAUD 2003 - Guarnido - Diaz Canales/Asukashinsha Publishing

By Kanta Ishida / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterThe manga this week

BLACKSAD Quelque part entre les ombres

(BLACKSAD Somewhere within the Shadows)

Japan title: BLACKSAD Kuroneko Tantei

By Juan Diaz Canales, story, and Juanjo Guarnido, art (Asukashinsha Publishing)

When I took up “Beastars” by Paru Itagaki in this column, I thought it might have been influenced by this week’s featured work. In both cases, the main characters are anthropomorphic animals featured in a serious story. “Blacksad,” however, is not a Japanese manga. It is a bande dessinee (French comic) authored by a Spanish storywriter-and-illustrator pair. The first volume was published in France in 1999, and the Japanese translation was published, originally by Hayakawa Publishing Corp., in 2005.

John Blacksad is a tough black cat who works as a private detective in New York. When his former lover, the actress Natalia, is shot dead, he begins his own investigation. After overcoming various obstacles and close calls, Blacksad finds his target to be an important politician who even the police can’t touch. On his own, Blacksad ascends to the top of a skyscraper where he fires his gun in a fit of rage.

I remember when I casually picked up a copy in a bookstore, and then dashed to the cash register after skimming the first page. The drawings’ quality and color scheme were exceptional and unusual, and I was spellbound by each panels’ movie-like layout and composition. The anthropomorphic portrayal of animals reminded me of Disney films, and sure enough, the comic’s illustrator, Juanjo Guarnido, once worked at Walt Disney Studios, where he was part of the animation team for “Tarzan.” Juan Diaz Canales, who created the storyline, apparently runs his own animation studio.

Only five volumes have been published in the series so far. Recently, a collection of background information on “Blacksad” was published in Japan, including an interview with Canales and Guarnido. The pair discussed their research on film noir crime movies, which were popular in the United States and France during the 1940s and ’50s, so they could recreate the genre with a modern twist. I was overwhelmed by the depth of their research and the precision with which they crafted scenes. While the flavor and the spirit of the story is dead serious, the characters’ faces are those of humorously caricatured animals. This “gap” is undoubtedly a big reason for the comic’s worldwide popularity.

As bandes desinees are limited to 48 pages per book, the stories are quite simple. The ending to “Blacksad” is not totally satisfying, and “Beastars” has an advantage in its fuller, multilayered story. Regardless, the unique and imaginative variety of expressions in “Blacksad” undoubtedly exerts a powerful influence on artists around the world. That could be why there seems to be a recent increase in Japanese manga with animal characters.

Ishida is a Yomiuri Shimbun senior writer whose areas of expertise include manga and anime.Speech

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