This must be the bleakest graphic novel/manga I have ever read. I was intrigued when I saw this copy at Sydney Japanese Foundation Library. The book is designed and edited by Adrian Tomine (whose Shortcomings I have yet to read), and includes Tomine’s introduction.
Yoshihiro Tatsumi is known as “the grandfather of Japanese alternative comics”. In 1957, he coined the term gekiga to differentiate the gritty, naturalistic style of cartooning he helped pioneer from that of the more commercial, youth-oriented manga. From the Introduction by Tomine:
“As plans for this translation project began to get off the ground, it soon became apparent that a comprehensive reprinting of Tatsumi’s work would be literally impossible. With a career spanning from the 1950s to the present day, and with a work ethic that yielded up to twelve pages in a week (and, with the help of assistants, fifty pages in one night!), Mr. Tatsumi has produced a mind-bogglingly immense body of work. So this will be a selective survey of his best work, beginning, at Mr. Tatsumi’s request, with the year of 1969. Our hope is to release one volume per year, each focusing on a single year in Mr. Tatsumi’s career.”
So Push Man and Other Stories is Tatsumi’s best-of collection from 1969. It contains slice-of-life portrait of grim life of Japanese working class (or what they literally call “salary-man”). The stories were originally published in a bi-weekly magazine called Gekiga-Young, a minor young men’s magazine with limited print runs. Tatsumi was only given 8 pages per issue because he had no reputation as a manga artist at the time. So most of the stories in this collection (16 altogether), except for a couple, are super short. Too short in fact that I found myself flying through the pages, hungry for more. I read this thick volume in almost one sitting, almost unheard of me.
Going back to my impression at the beginning of the post, the book is surprisingly grim, with numerous sexual elements and violence, “both refreshing and unsettling” according to Tomine, to which I have to agree. The illustration style is very simple. The main character is always a man, who almost looks the same in all the stories, and eerily, rarely talks, which makes the underlying silent resignation from and frustration of life strongly resonate throughout the book. The title story is about a pushman (you know how in Japan they have official pushers to push people into the overcrowded trains?). Many, if not all, of the stories revolve around hopelessness of everyday’s life and often end in death, murder, or suicide.
There’s an interview with the author at the end of the book and when asked about his influences in general that had a significant impact of his work, Tatsumi answered police reports and other human interest articles in papers, and that he hardly read any manga. Little wonder then that reading this book almost feels like reading crime newspaper, full with events and crimes that are hard to believe, but you know they must be happening somewhere in the society. The stories are highly unsettling, but really addictive. I likened it to watching a train-wreck. You know it’s horrible and probably haunts you for a while, but you can’t look away.
I think it needs a lot of courage to produce this kind of work and I commend Tatsumi for that. He himself doesn’t feel very secure however, noting at the end of the interview “I myself am a very normal person. Please do not interpret these stories as representative of the author’s personality.” I’d be worried too if I were him. I mean I don’t even dare to summarize you the stories. If you’re curious, Drawn Quarterly, the publisher, provides one complete story as a preview (click the pdf file on the side), so you can check that out.
The Push Man and Other Stories is quintessentially Japanese, the darker, perverse side of it that is. Recommended for the freshness, the boldness, and the absurdity of it all. But the sensitive and the faint of heart must stay away. Will I read more Tatsumi’s works? Uum.. YES. I’m dying to read A Drifting Life, his massive 800+ page autobiography (in comic form, of course).
1969 (Japanese), 2005 (English), 202 pp
Graphic Novels 2010 (book #9)
Have you read the book or Tatsumi’s other books? Let me know!