Can inner peace be achieved through violence? And do one's daily struggles do him more violence than he realizes? Swiss artist J.P. Kalonji carves his own path to enlightenment in "365 Samurai and a Few Bowls of Rice," an original graphic novel published by Dark Horse Comics in December. The book, measuring in at nearly 400 pages, represents Kalonji's English-language debut. In a phone conversation with CBR News, Kalonji spoke enthusiastically about the thought behind his latest project and his hopes for making the leap into American comics.
"365 Samurai and a Few Bowls of Rice" follows the story of a samurai called Ningen, alone on a quest to kill 365 samurai in order to attain enlightenment. Every page is a single image, rendered in a style reminiscent of Jeff Smith's "Bone," with fight scenes that take up several pages, allowing readers to linger on more introspective intermissions.
Kalonji said that "365 Samurai" began from the simple idea that every day is it's own battle. "You wake up in the morning and, oh my God, I've got to go to work, I've got to pay this, I've got to do that," the cartoonist explained. He wrapped this concept within the disciplined character of a samurai, whom he called Ningen, the Japanese word for "human being." The device of depicting a single image per page also played into his core concept. "I'm going to make one picture per page, for a reason - because every day is like a fight. You have to go on and on and on, you never know what will happen. What pushes us is just a goal that we have in our minds," Kalonji said. "You have to have an attitude of the bushido code to go on, go on, and hold tight to your dreams.
"That's the reason I chose to do the Japanese era, the strict discipline. It's fascinating, and also a little bit bloody. But there's also a message behind it. Where you're going, keep going on, no matter who you are, whatever you want, what your religion is," Kalonji continued. "It's a big message, I think it's universal. You don't kill samurai, you kill days. And you're changing all the time throughout your long journeys. Whatever you're scared of, don't panic. It's also this message of faith, like the worst happens to you, everything collapses, you're still alive. You just go on."
With 365 story pages, equating to one per day over a single year, the book is divided into seasons, which Kalonji said are related to "the four seasons of life." "We are never the same in winter as in summer, you know. Things change. Nobody can tell the future.
"My intention was to not draw another story about a Japanese character who kills for revenge. I wanted to put maybe something philosophical under the storytelling. Something people could say, 'Oh, interesting,'" he continued. "Ok, this is not only a crazy guy that has to kill 365 samurai. People will call me and say, 'Ok, this Kalonji is a little bit psycho.'"
Having only one image per page creates an extraordinarily rapid pace for fight scenes, while paradoxically slowing things down for more meditative passages. "On the first page, you see a battle under rain, and you just look at it and it's very intense. And my idea was to keep all the vibration and influences I had from Japanese movies, like the classic ones of Kurosawa. Those movies were fed to me by my father when I was a kid," Kalonji said.
"The first battle, if you compose it like most comics, it would probably take two pages. My idea was to be more focused on what happens - time really takes on a lot of importance in the battle, especially in the beginning." Kalonji also said he likes to experiment with his own style, with "365 Samurai" representing his latest challenge. "Most of the time, people ask me why I don't have one style; because I like to draw. I'm very interested in painting and things, I like to draw, there's no reason I can't do painting and drawing and other stuff. I like to explore. Why am I keeping to the same job all the time, you know? I just want to do different things. New experiences are good. Not all, but in terms of artistic [experiences], I'm still constantly learning."
Though "365 Samurai" is his first book for the English language market, Kalonji has published graphic novels in French since the age of 18, mostly centered around his hometown of Geneva. More recently, though, as the subject matter of "365 Samurai" will attest, he has been interested in feudal Japanese themes. A half-Japanese former colleague at Nethoprod, Kalonji's small press publishing effort, helped him with the particulars of the culture. "We had a lot of resources from his mother and people and friends who are still based in Japan," Kalonji said. "A lot of people look at me and say, 'Yeah man, why Japan? Why samurai? You're born Swiss, [your family is] originally from Congo, why are you talking about Japanese stuff?' It's not just Japanese stuff, though. I just used the metaphor of samurai for people who go on and on and on and keep pushing, being stubborn. If I had another example, I'd probably use Celtic warriors, who also had a powerful image."
Kalonji said that he always saw "365 Samurai" as more suited to the tastes of English-speaking comics readers than what Francophones tend to prefer, but was surprised when Dark Horse offered to publish his work. "I was like, 'Really? Are you kidding?,'" the artist said, laughing. "Telling that to a little Swiss guy... I've done my things, you know, in French, publishing here, in France, and all across Europe. We've got 'Tintin,' we've got a lot of stuff. But it's also true that, like the Japanese have manga, you in America have all those comics with long stories and a great history of comics.
"Thank God Dark Horse picked me, because I think it's the best place to receive this project. I'm very enthusiastic, and it's quite stressful [waiting] to see how the public is going to receive my book in America," Kalonji said. "Because it is a new beginning, it's an all new territory, I cannot compare this to Europe. I attended Comic-Con [International in San Diego] this year for the first time. It was like, oh shit, you know? I'd heard a lot about this. It was such a great time. People came from the publishing houses, and I met the big boss [Dark Horse publisher] Mike Richardson. That's what I love also, is people are like, hey, it's comics. It's business, but it's comics. Just chill."
As to whether the English-speaking world will see more of Kalonji's previous or upcoming works, the artist said he'd certainly love to see it happen. "This is the million dollar question!" he said. "No doubt, if it makes money enough for them, and people have a good response and like what they find, there is no doubt about it. This is my ticket, this is my passport." Kalonji said he has several sketchbooks full of stories he feels would be better suited to American rather than European audiences. He added that he may even do a "Chronicles of Ningen" book, showing battles with some of the 365 samurai not seen in the original book, and that "Futago," another samurai book Kalonji is working on at present, may see an English translation. "Futago means 'twins' in Japanese, and the characters are two twins, one's a ronin and one's a very straight samurai, who were separated when they were much younger. I have two twins in my family and I like to explore and think how they develop, in the emotional way of 'Oh, I miss him, my brother.'" the cartoonist said.
Though these and other projects may be on the horizon, including a series for the iPhone, for now Kalonji is focused on the debut of "365 Samurai and a Few Bowls of Rice." "I can't wait," he said. "I'm trying not to be too nervous."
Read the first 35 pages of "365 Samurai and a Few Bowls of Rice" right here on CBR.