Yuichi Yokoyama’s Garden is by far the strangest comic of any kind I’ve ever read.
It’s a lovely looking object, as much of what publisher PictureBox releases tend to be. It’s an eight-by-six-inch square containing a fat, 330-page page count. It’s printed right to left, as it would have been in the original Japanese, and the white dust jacket is covered in generously spaced, slanted square reproductions of the panels from within, here printed in red ink. Within them are speed lines, large Japanese letters in a mechanical, sound-effect font, and strange characters engaged in mysterious, exciting-looking actions.
The very first panel is a close-up of one of those strange figures, telling a group of its fellow figures, “’Fraid the agarden ain’t open today.” After a few sentences of conversation—“What sort of garden is it?” “A very good garden”—they decide to walk around the fence and, when they find a break in the fence, enter the garden anyway.
The garden isn’t any sort of park and doesn’t seem to have any real vegetation—it’s a bizarre landscape filled with unusual and unlikely things, many of them seemingly falling somewhere between organic and mechanical, as if the entire system were an alien, inorganic organism. There’s a river a waterfall of balls, a bride of swivel chairs, houses and mountains of every conceivable material and design, strange forms of conveyance, fake trees, towns where every single thing is put on wheels.
For the book’s 300-plus pages, this group of individuals—the size of which is never defined, but is evidently quite large—explores this space, splitting up and getting deeper and deeper into ever more complex, more imaginative and more dangerous territory.
These figures aren’t exactly characters. In fact, they themselves are as strange as the setting. No two of them look a like, and while they are mostly rather humanoid in shape, they’re not recognizably human, beyond having trunks, two arms, two legs and a head of some sort.
Heads are sometimes just objects, like a cone attached to a sphere, or the cabin of an airplane, or a coin, for example. Many have patterns emblazoning their bodies. Some have faces. One figure is an umbrella with a shiny sphere atop of it, and two legs. Another has wings instead of arms. Another seems composed entirely of little balls fused in the shape of a man.
They talk, and they talk a lot, but only in simple, declarative, observational statements. For example, here’s all the dialogue from page 132:
“The space is narrow; please enter slowly one by one.”
“This section is movable.”
“This room has artificial grass.”
“It’s a long narrow room with high ceilings.”
“The end of the room is so far it almost can’t be seen.”
“Perhaps it’s a hallway.”
“Let’s go down this hallway.”
Now, here’s the really strange thing about Garden—it’s an intense, suspenseful, even addictive read, in the tradition of the sorts of page-turners that enamored readers may claim they couldn’t put down.
But there’s something existential about the suspense in this book. Why can’t we put it down? Why can’t we stop turning the pages? Why is this book about nothing, nothing at all really, this book that has purposefully, carefully omitted all of the things we think we want from a reading experience—conflict, resolution, plot, story, characters, dialogue—still so compelling? Can setting alone really be this thrilling?
I’m afraid I don’t have answers to those questions, as fascinated as I am with them. It’s easier to see how Yokoyama prompts them, by divorcing his “characters” from anything human and recognizable, making them in a way even more abstracted than stick figures, so that a reader can’t associate anything with them, or relate to them in a typical fashion. By reducing almost all conversation into exposition. And, of course, by creating an environment so rigorously thought out yet wildly imaginative that it emanates mystery.
It’s a mystery without a solution, really—at the risk of spoiling the experience eve a little, I’ll reveal that despite a few clever twists and call-backs near the end, there’s no sudden, transformational climax that will make the narrative (such as it is) “make sense”… it’s not all a dream, they’re not all in hell, there’s no smoke monster, etc. But here, that mystery is the thing. The reader is in the same position as those odd, vaguely humanoid figures—exploring the garden just to see what incredible sight or experience is around the corner.
It’s a very good garden indeed.