Reading: ‘Travaux Publics’ by Yuichi Yokohama


While responding to one of my earlier queries about Nihei Tsumoto, Chris Lanier (on the Comics Journal message board) put me onto another Japanese artist: Yuichi Yokohama, whose work is now being translated into French. Lanier suggested:

You might want to check out Yuichi Yokoyama (who has some books in french translation — the dialogue isn’t dense so if you don’t speak French it’s not a problem) — particularly his book “Public Works” (Travaux Publics). His work is “art” manga, not genre work; “Travaux Publics” shows the construction of various absurd and impossible public works projects. I wrote about it here:

I don’t get to talking about “Travaux Publics” until the last four paragraphs or so.

Retrieved: 11 April 2007

Lanier’s excellent article is well worth checking out for his analysis of some of Yokohama’s other books, which I hope to get hold of soon. I read Travaux Publics over the weekend, on board a pair of big comfy German trains en route between Strasbourg and Stuttgart. The Easter weekend finally heralded the arrival of some consistently warm and sunny weather, and I must confess to being usually at my happiest sitting with a good book on a comfy train, looking out at the landscape roll past under blue skies.

Before leaving Strasbourg I’d been to see a rare big screen showing of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. It’s a visual, aural and alegorical feast of a movie – certainly one of my favourite films of all time. It reminded me of the strange impression that it made on me the first time that I watched it as a British teenager, several decades after it was made. The context in which I watched it, and the expectations that I had of film in general were very different from those in which it was originally made. Many western audiences continue to find the film very difficult. To film fans raised on Holywood or even European cinema, many scenes seem ‘too long’ or ‘too slow’; the entire pace of the film is different, and Tarkovsky wasn’t under any obligation to subscribe to any western cinematic standards or norms.

Reading a Japanese cartoon for the first time can be similarly disarming for a western reader. You might be bored of hearing it said, but it’s quite a shift in habits to learn to read a book from ‘back to front’, although the French editors have been kind enough to include a little explanation panel about how to read manga at the beginning of the book (that would be the back of the book for those of you not used to Japanese).


Note how that the French translation maintains the Japanese script: Yokohama acknowledges in the author’s note at the beginning of the book how important sound effects are to his strips, and even for a non-Japanese reader, the bold shapes become almost heirogliphical.

Put simply Travaux Publics is, without doubt, one of the strangest books that I have ever read. I tried to summarise the book, for this article, but subsequently found that Lanier explained it in his article much better than I could:

Its four stories show the construction of strange monuments and spaces. They describe huge mobilizations of resources for apparently useless ends. One “public work” is a fluorescent-lit room, set into a boulder, positioned in front of an absolutely straight (and also artificially constructed) canal. Another is a glass room, outfitted with chairs and a floor of Astroturf, set under the surface of a man-made lake. These constructions are not only absurd in themselves, the methods of construction are entirely impractical. The third “public work” is an artificial mountain, assembled from boulders that are dropped from airplanes, then coated with glue flowing from a single hose.

Chris Lanier, Fight! Fight! Fight! The High Hat

Retrieved: 11 April 2007

The book is, quite simply, bizarre. Picking up Nihei Tsutomu’s Abrama at the same time as Travaux Publics made me appreciate just how different Yokohama’s style is to mainstream Japanese manga. In absolutely contextless landscapes, massive machines, cranes and rolling elements charge through scenes to create rivers, lakes and mountains.


There is absolutely no suggestion where these machines have come from, where they are going or who controls them. It is (to me) almost terrifying.


The landscape is almost a stage, serviced by unseen machinery that drops down from the skies to cut, dig, excavate, pour, yank or tear into the surface of the earth. As soon as a mechanical arm, aeroplane or enormous rolling rock has left the frame of the panel, it is forgotten. The ‘public works’ of the title are the only consistent element in the story, gradually nearing completion. Yokohama explains in the author’s notes of the French edition:

Des manga sans l’histoire – Ce qui m’importe c’est de représenter le passage d’une scène à une autre. Il n’y a pas lieu de raconter une histoire. Le monde dans lequel nous vivons offre une multitude de choses intéressants: n’importe quelle situation peut être saisie et restituée en bande desinée. Si j’élaborais moi-même une histoire, elle serait entachée de la conscience et des intentions de l’auteur que je suis, et c’est que je veux éviter. Même si des personnages évoluent dans mes œuvres ce n’est pas le monde des hommes que je veux dépeindre. Je veux décrire des événements naturels qui progressent, comme un typhon ou un déluge, sans rapport avec la volonté humaine.

Yuichi Yokohama, Travaux Publics
Montreuil, Éditions Matière, 2004, p. 7

Which I would translate as:

Manga without stories – What is important to me is to represent the passage of one scene to another. It is unnecessary to tell a story. The world in which we live offers a multitude of interesting things: any situation can be seized and retold in a comic book. If I worked out a story by myself, it would be sullied with my own conscience and my own intentions, and I want to avoid that. Even if characters do evolve in my work, it is not the world of the men that I want to depict. I want to describe natural events which progress, like a typhoon or a flood, without relationship to the human will.



The stories are not without human characters. In one instance, the finishing touches upon a particularly strange underwater viewing gallery are made by a team of exciteable humanoids who appear to celebrate the completion of their project as if it had been part of a race. In the same author’s notes, Yokohama states:

Des personnages sans psychologie – Je ne m’intéresse ni aux sentiments des gens ni à leurs emotions. Je ne traite que ce qui est visible à l’œil. Mes personnages n’agissent pas pour la satisfaction d’intérêts collectifs ou individuels, mais pour atteindre un grand but, pour accomplir une grande mission.

Yuichi Yokohama, Travaux Publics
Montreuil, Éditions Matière, 2004, p. 8

Which I would translate as:

Characters without psychology – I am interested neither in the feelings of people nor in their emotions. I examine only what is to the eye. My characters do not work towards the satisfaction of a collective or individual interest, but to achieve a great goal, to achieve a great mission.

So emotion exists, but in a very limited and impersonal manner. The great mission exists only partially within the frame of the cartoon panels. The reason that the great missions have been started or the reasons that they are such great goals remain hidden, denying us an understanding of the motivation of the few characters that exist in these stories.

In the closing panel of the story about the construction of a new mountain (above) two passengers in a light aircraft seem to take delight in discovering the new geographical feature. This panel remains one of the most interesting to me in the whole book, especially since Yokohama claims not to be interested in the development of human characters. I can’t help reading this panel and wanting to know where these futuristic plane travellers came from. Why is the sight of a mountain so exciting? Do they not have any mountains where they come from? And is that why so much energy and effort is put into constructing these massive ‘public works’?

The idea of a comic strip without a story is interesting, but this just shows that even Yokohama has had difficulty not implying some kind of continuation: some kind of before and after. It is impossible for the reader to follow the construction of this mountain without asking ‘why’, ‘how’ or ‘where’.

I initiated this project because I was frustrated with the sterility of images of buildings that told nothing about ‘why’, ‘how’ or ‘where’ they were built. In Travaux Publics it seems I’ve found an artist who perhaps aspires to the disconnection of mainstream architectural photography: the isolation and purity of the subject that lies within the frame of the picture, and the simple progression from one image to another rather than the obligation what comes before and after, or outside the frame of the panel.

I naturally reserve the right to change or adapt my opinions as I continue to think about this one. Thanks again to Chris Lanier for recommending the book and for publishing his interesting profile on Yokohama’s work.


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    "no words no action" was an experiment in academic blogging. The blog recorded the progress of reading, research and investigations that lead to a Masters in Architecture dissertation at the University of Sheffield in autumn 2007. You can find out more about the author's interest in blogging here.

    To find out more about the thesis, download the original dissertation proposal (pdf format) from February 2007 or the semi-formal first chapter (pdf format) from April 2007.

    Further research projects are in the works, and their dependence on human interaction and networking suggests more blogging will be inevitable when the time comes.


    At the time that this blog was created, James Benedict Brown was a fifth year Masters of Architecture student at the University of Sheffield. James' personal blog is here.

    James graduated in 2008 and now lives and works in Glasgow.


    This project was supervised by Renata Tyszczuk at the University of Sheffield


    If you want to correct me on something, offer an opinion on a particular artist or building, or if you'd like to recommend someone or something to find out about, please feel free to leave a comment. Just click on 'Comments' under the headline of the relevant post...


    Click here to browse James' bookshelf, and to purchase books being used in this project.


    I've managed to miss almost half a dozen compelling conferences around the world so far this year, simply because I have no (more) money to travel and no time to escape my studies in Strasbourg and Sheffield. However, if I had a magic plane ticket and plenty of time, here's my selection of essential conferences to attend. Hopefully I'll be there for more of them next year... click here for the diary (updated every time I miss another one).

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    All images are used for illustrative purposes only, and the copyright remains with the artist and/or creator. Please contact me if I have misappropriated an image or incorrectly credited it. Thanks... JBB


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