guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

April 2006


Yoshihiro Tatsumi, The Push Man and Other Stories, translated by Yuji Oniki & edited by Adrian Tomine (Drawn & Quarterly, 2005). 202 pp. (hardbound) $19.95

by Frenchy Lunning

For readers of manga and comics alike, this book is a strange and wonderful treat. Resurrected from obscurity by Adrian Tomine, the well-known and respected Indy comic creator, it is the first of Tatsumi’s work to be republished in a series that will showcase Tatsumi’s work starting from his stories published originally in 1969, and proceeding from there to republish his work of each successive year annually. The book is hardbound and beautifully designed (typical of Drawn & Quarterly) as an anthology of short eight-paged stories, each an odd look at the life of working class middle-aged Japanese men in the 1960’s.

Along with the stories, Tomine has included a well-written introduction that fills in Tatsumi’s biographical information, how Tomine came into contact with this work, and how the series came into being. For those who relish this sort of back-story, it is very informative and makes the work even more compelling. At the end is a short transcript of an interview Tomine recorded with Tatsumi. We discover that it was Tatsumi who was responsible for naming and, in a sense, setting up an entire genre of manga called
gekiga, which according to Tomine is a conjunction of the word “drama” and “art.” Paul Gravett states in his book Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics that Tatsumi established this term in 1957, eight years before this work was created. Gravett describes gekiga as “a darker kind of manga…quite different from the period’s mainstream comic titles targeted at kids—less simplistic and fanciful, their settings closer to the street and contemporary reality.”1 Older adolescents and young adults read them and, I presume, older adults as well. Gekiga are now understood as mood pieces—dark in tone, emotional, and adult in subject matter. This is an excellent description of the stories in this book.

There are sixteen stories in this edition, and all have some very particular constants that would seem to define Tatsumi’s outlook, experience, and process as a young man in Japan in the 1960’s. According to the interview, Tatsumi produced these stories for a bi-weekly magazine called
Gekiga-Young, a publication marketed toward young men. He was also creating comics for dojin-shi magazines, which are similar to what we understand as independent comics. Because of the lack of controlling publishers, Tatsumi had more freedom to explore topics and styles that were considered as outsider work: stories that covered risky topics and pictured risqué images. He states that he did not read manga, but got his inspiration from “human interest” newspapers such as our National Enquirer. This becomes very clear as the stories are generally centered in a sordid or criminal event in the life of the protagonist.

Each story is an eight-paged fable—that is, a story of events that in some sense end with a moral. This moral is generally the consequence of the key event in the story. But the most immediate effect of reading these stories is the sense of paradox between the utter sameness and banality of the lives of these men and the bizarre and lurid crime that structures the plot of the story. Common events consist of dead infants found in sewers, murder of wives and girlfriends, and adultery. The quiet and subdued regularity of Tatsumi’s panel execution deliver these horrifying tales as a part of life for the working class guy.

These men accept this horror with an overall sense of resignation. They plod through their dreary lives until they become activated by anger, rage, misogyny, injustice or jealousy. They commit an act that is most often criminal, and regardless of whether they get away with it or not, they return to their state of resignation, accepting the consequences with unanimity and calm. The ambiguous moral forms around this final resignation. It is this uneasy ambiguity combined with the lurid horrors of these stories that give these tales their brilliance and power. They are not unlike the old Twilight Zone stories written by Rod Serling. The power and effect of the stories lies distinctly in the
sense and mood of the paradoxical climax of the story, rather than in the action of the plot. Their brevity and succinct structure make them all the more compelling and creepy.

The art is subtle—straightforward in its representations, yet shot through with a sense of ominous foreboding. Unlike the contemporary manga we get in the U.S., these illustrations look in style more the New Yorker cartoons of the 1950s and 1960s. Rather than the extreme and somewhat formulaic depictions of characters in contemporary manga, these characters have a distinct dull sameness in their representation of a type of everyman and also in the depiction of the disturbing everywomen in their lives. The stories contain none of the symbolic floral background textures, the shorthand throbbing veins, the busy pictograms or stylized “chibi” emotional transformations of current manga; instead, there is a staid and eloquent realism that surrounds the figures of the city streets of 1950s Tokyo. Beautifully drawn, lit, and detailed images of the city become a silent chorus to the state of mind of the male antihero. Frequently, as in the last page (202) of the strange final story “My Hitler,” the antihero looks back toward the city looming behind him with a knowing smile, as if he were in cahoots with the city itself throughout the story. It is in the city scenes that much of the power of Tatsumi’s art is expressed. Tatsumi clearly had the city of Tokyo as his muse.

The knowledge that his is only the first of a series of Tatsumi’s work is exhilarating. For many readers, waiting for the next collection will be similar to the last few years’ anxiety of waiting for the next “Lord of the Rings” movie. I cannot wait to see how Tatsumi’s work matures, how he develops as an artist and storyteller, and how these poignant men of Japan might find their way out of their oppressive prison (if indeed they do). And it will be gratifying to see Yoshihiro Tatsumi receive the recognition he so richly deserves.

1 Paul Gravett, Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics (New York: Laurence King Publishing, 2004), 38.