[19 December 2005]
Poetry for Yakuza
Unless you’re already familiar with Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s work, then you don’t know what to expect from The Push Man, a collection of the artist’s comics short stories from 1969. Don’t judge by the cover: its attractive layout and beautiful printing are misleading. And it won’t help to know that this is manga, the comics genre, which, like no other, has championed gorgeous, opulent artwork.
Nor would I blame you, if, upon cracking open this little brick of a book, your first reaction were disappointment. Let’s be frank: Tatsumi is not—or, was not, at any rate in 1969—a very talented draftsman. Breezily inked, unimaginatively laid out, choppily scripted stories: these are the stock and trade of The Push Man.
But none of these humble qualities really detract from the work; if anything, they are essential to its success. For The Push Man is an album of grimy urban parables, which, to borrow Bob Dylan’s immortal words at the 2001 Academy Awards, “doesn’t pussy-foot around about human nature.” It offers up its substantial fare without literary garnish. Each story is like a fresh serving of knuckle sandwich. Short, hard, and delivered with a suppressed smile. This is poetry for yakuza, Hemingway for the visually inclined.
To give you sense of these narratives, here’s a prose translation of the first story in the volume, staying as faithful as I can to the tone of the original, without the aid of pictures:
A man works at a factory. His wife neglects him. She wants to start a business, but she needs a million yen. The man sticks his hand in a metal-press at the factory. He loses his hand, but he gets a million yen in insurance. He gives it to his wife and she is happy. The man doesn’t work anymore. So he buys a fish tank and few Piranhas. One day he catches his wife two-timing with another man. He sticks her hand in the Piranha tank. The fish mutilate her arm. She leaves him. He kills the fish. He goes back to work at the factory.
Get the idea? For good measure, here’s another:
A mechanic watches a soft-core actress on TV every night. One day she comes into the garage. She needs her car fixed. When he tries to talk to her, she humiliates him. He rigs her engine. She dies in a car accident. He commits suicide.
Little known in the West, Yoshihiro Tatsumi is one of the living grandmasters of contemporary manga. Tatsumi himself coined the term gekiga (“dramatic pictures”) in 1957 to describe the genre which he pioneered: dark, hard-boiled, life dramas illustrated with rough and ready drawings—born in opposition to the clear-line Disney-inspired children’s fare that dominated manga at the time. At its inception gekiga simply was the alternative face of manga; in time it has set the stage for a flowering of counter-cultural approaches to the medium.
Tatsumi is famous for stories that peel away the onion layers of the Japanese working class society. Or rather, they cut through them; there is no peeling of layers in his stories. The clothes are simply off, in all senses. A case in point: the closest thing we get to a seduction scene in The Push Man goes as follows. A man helps a woman after her shirt gets ripped in a rush-hour crowd; she takes him out for a drink. Woman: “Take me back to your place.” Man: “...” Woman: “You’re a hard-working student aren’t you? That’s great. I like you. Sleep with me.”
Whereas much contemporary manga shimmers with eroticism, Tatsumi delivers sexuality without embellishment. It’s not that the sex is boring—a traveling porno projectionist, a bedridden sex slave, a half-wit prostitute, a sperm donor, a suicidal peeping tom, a secret transsexual, a homicidal soft-core addict—these are just a few of the characters that keep it interesting. And it’s not that the characters in these stories don’t enjoy the sex, they often do. Instead, the author seems singularly uninterested in titillating the reader. Sexual desire here is not disingenuously picked up as an excuse to write erotica; it is the burning, uncomfortable, fact at the heart of this book. (Unfortunately, the act is not pulled off without a stiff dose of chauvinism: the women tend to be prostitutes, evil, neglectful, or wind up dead.)
The infelicities of desire are only one of many impolite subjects dissected under Tatsumi’s jaded pen. Another is illegal abortion, especially its most unseemly face, a veritable population of half-developed fetuses floating through the sewers of Japan’s cities. Reoccurring throughout these stories, the image of the baby-in-the sewer is a grim inversion of a familiar biblical myth, a testament not to civilization’s success, but rather its detritus.
In “Who are you?”, possibly the best story in the volume, and certainly the most ambitious, Tatsumi dices together a Japanese man’s existential crises with the tenuous power dynamic of American military presence in post-war Japan. The Japanese protagonist keeps a deadly scorpion in a can, to which he continually poses the question, “who are you?” The insect’s predicament is a double metaphor for America-in-Japan, and Japan-in-the-World, at once powerless and deadly. When the man is caught trying to steal a gun from an American base, he admits, “I just wanted something powerful.”
Tatsumi’s comics are spiritual brothers to Johnny Cash’s legendary concert at Fulsom Prison: they don’t glorify the bad life, and they don’t let you forget it, they tell you how it is. Nearly every story ends abruptly in death or sex, or both. Such tales would be bleak if it weren’t for the fact that they’re told in eight pages a piece. There’s no time to build up the kind of depressed pathos we associate with American comics heavyweights like Chris Ware or Harvey Pekar. More reminiscent of Camus’ stranger, Tatsumi’s protagonists determine their lives with purposefulness and little explanation. In every case, the deeds are done with dizzying efficiency and we are left to piece together the psychological pieces.
To drive home the point, the male protagonist of every story looks exactly the same, a kind of blank everyman inserted into variously harrowing circumstances. He is everyone’s nobody, a symbol for besieged lives well beyond the shores of Japan. Tatsumi’s knack for capturing authentic grit must be due in part to his explicit disinterest in the lives of the wealthy and cultured. “My influences: police reports and other human interest articles in the papers. I hardly read any manga.”
Frank, unencumbered stories beget no-nonsense drawings. Every page is split into heavily outlined square panels, and every panel is a medium shot which clearly identifies its subject. Facial expressions and physical dynamics are portrayed in thick black lines, which, even when they are crude, make their meaning clear. Subtlety is not the game here, neither in plot nor pictures. Cause or consequence of this attitude, Tatsumi is notoriously prolific, producing at least two pages per day for his entire career (under deadline, and with the help of assistants, he can draw upward of 50 pages in a day, a feat of impossible speed akin to a two-minute mile.)
The Push Man is the first in a planned retrospective of Tatsumi’s gargantuan oeuvre, edited by Adrian Tomine (author of Optic Nerve) and published by Drawn and Quarterly. Drawn and Quarterly has made a name for itself with handsome editions of sophisticated indie comics. The present volume, designed by Chip Kidd, is no exception. But reading Tatsumi’s stories inside a hardcover with a $20 price tag, one is perhaps made wistful for the days when these tales were genuinely part of a Japanese underground, wedged between hundreds of other pulpy pages, in a format as seedy as the lives they depicted,
This is not the only charm that has been lost in translation. Since Japanese reads right to left, translators of manga are left with the difficult decision of publishing books in their original format, and hoping Western readers get the hang of reading backwards—or reversing each and every page so that the sequence reads like a typical Western comic book. The correct decision is to reprint the images in the original, and trust readers to change their habits. Unfortunately, Adrian Tomine has decided to go the opposite route.
If you want to know what’s wrong with this strategy, take a well-loved photograph and look at it in the mirror. The fact is that things just don’t look the same in reverse. So many visual riches are already lost in the transformation of a pictographic alphabet into roman characters, we needn’t loose the original drawings too. In this day and age, I would think that Western readers could accommodate. (It takes about 20 pages or so to get the hang of reading this way, a little like reading Shakespeare (so should we translate Shakespeare into modern English?))
That said, The Push Man is a very welcome addition to the small but growing canon of English translation manga. To all the nay-sayers who think manga is little more than over-sized pupils and fluttering skirts: read this book. To everyone else: read this book. After this, we have only have few tens of thousands of pages more to look forward to.