[Note: Even though the plot seems pretty far from primary when experiencing this head-trip of a book, the following contains details that could be considered "spoilers."]
The Box Man starts and ends with a kappa, and we see everything it does. The creature hops on the back of a passing scooter, bringing us along as it observes and becomes part of an incredibly strange adventure.
The kappa is "easily the single most famous yokai in Japan", according to Yokai Attack: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide. Among its other, nastier traits, the child-sized water-monster has a beak-like mouth and a shell like a turtle, and it likes to cause trouble.
The authors of Yokai Attack, Hiroki Yoda and Matt Alt, also describe a few kappa-related Japanese proverbs, one being "riku ni agatta kappa", meaning "like a kappa on land", in reference to "situations where someone is out of their element".
That proverb fits well with the kappa in The Box Man, who starts the story by placing itself (and us) in an uncomfortable situation. The creature also seems to be a recurring character throughout much of artist Imiri Sakabashira's other work, and in that sense it brings to mind Frank Kozik's signature "smokin' labbit": it's oddly cute, even though it would probably hurt you if it felt like it. Much of Sakabashira's art appears intent on making viewers feel out of their element.
Along with his new-found kappa-companion, the man on the scooter transports a mysterious box through a sort of hell that includes amazingly detailed, decaying cityscapes, from rooftops to back alleys, through mysterious hallways and rooms (perhaps a dream hotel, as in D.M. Thomas's novel, The White Hotel), and a seaside landscape as strange as the one in the "Hermann Goering Casino" section of Gravity's Rainbow.
Along the way we encounter all manner of kaiju and characters that seem to have been inspired by the work of Eiji Tsuburaya, as well as regular humans (most of whom end up tortured by brain-eating monsters).
Through it all, the man on the scooter remains stoic and focused on transporting that large box. By the time we see his face at the end, it's striking how realistic he appears compared to the other, more fantastic-looking characters we've encountered. More on this ending in a moment.
At just over 120 pages, The Box Man is a beautiful, mind-bending little book that balances straightforward action with phantasmagorical, at times nightmarish, images.
The mix of linear and non-linear storytelling creates a tension and ambiguity that leaves the reader trying to figure out exactly what's going on, and wondering if the artist is just being weird to be weird (not that there's anything wrong with that).
This work is strong enough to bear (if not demand) repeated reading/experiencing. Something strange and compelling is going on.
There's also a strong sense of foreignness in the book's subject matter and its context as a work of translation, presented to an audience most likely unfamiliar with any cultural references.
So what does it mean? It seems dangerous to over-interpret a work like this, even though it's tempting.
One suggestive detail: Sakabashira's Box Man shares a title with a lesser-known work by one of Japan's most famous writers, Kobo Abe (whose most famous novel was probably Woman in the Dunes). Admittedly, these are English translations of their titles, but the similarity draws out other food for thought (or for brain-eating monsters).
The two authors have much in common. Each is a renaissance man: among other things, Sakabashira is a mangaka, musician, designer (of toys, wallets, and probably a lot more); Abe's career included being a novelist, playwright, trained doctor (who never practiced) and photographer.
Sakabashira and Abe are known for creating surreal, striking work. They also share an intriguing parallel in that each is a pseudonym. Sakabashira's real (or at least other) name is Mochizuki Katsuhiro. Abe's was Kimifusa Abe.
Abe's novel The Box Man follows a homeless character who writes:
"This is the record of a box man. I am beginning this account in a box. A cardboard box that reaches just to my hips when I put it over my head. That is to say, at this juncture the box man is me. A box man, in his box, is recording the chronicle of a box man."
Abe's box man spends all of his time in the box, writing on the inside of it. He sticks his feet out of the bottom to walk around, but keeps his head inside, and looks at the world through a hole in the box. Abe was born forty years earlier than Sakabashira--perhaps Sakabashira's box man is also Abe's, but as an old man?
Sakabashira's Box Man could be a metaphor for aging and death. The human protagonist is an adult whose father is aged and infirm (his lower half doesn't work anymore, or works differently, and he must be carried). The son can't take care of his father anymore, and undertakes a mission to transport his father to a place where he will make friends.
In this interpretation, the grotesqueness and violence seems to represent the son's horror at age and decay. He's also chased by monsters, or demons, and the other humans he encounters wrestle with demons of their own. That they all lose suggests a bleak outlook on life in general.
But the story also seems to end on a tender note: he wants his father to find friends, and to be somewhere he can enjoy his life (even if that life seems to disgust his son). At the end, the father seems happy in his new environment, taking the (also disgusted) kappa with him. The father might be out of his mind (and too "decadent," as his son says), but maybe that's the solution to a happy life, in Sakabashira's vision.
This brings to mind another, more loosely associated parallel: Donald Barthelme's The Dead Father, which also involves the transportation of a strange and ambiguously allegorical father figure.
Introducing a recent reprint of the book, Donald Antrim makes an observation about Barthelme's "comicomythic patricide narrative, with excursions" that fits equally well with Sakabashira's psychedelic Box Man:
"Reading [it], one has the sense that its author enjoys an almost complete artistic freedom -- even, counterintuitively, an obligation to freedom -- a permission to reshape, misrepresent, or even ignore the world as we find it."
Four-Eyed Stranger appears every alternate Thursday and looks at classic manga reprints, and unusual modern work by Asian artists that might not fall under a strict definition of manga.
Sakabashira's a bit of a mystery in the West, but here are ten interesting examples of his renaissance nature:
In his shakin'-shakin' rock'n'roll band, Rouden Ginza, he sings and plays a guitar that looks like Bo Diddley's. Compared to the incredibly oddball author's photo in the book (cape, tights, headscarf, shades, GUN), here he looks like a character in an Adrian Tomine comic:
Imiri Sakabashira website (all images and photos)
Coverage and amazing images from a Imiri Sakabashira gallery show in Tokyo
Imiri Sakabashira's artwork in Vice magazine
Imiri Sakabashira artwork inspired by Where the Wild Things Are
Bill Randall on Imiri Sakabashira's paintings and manga
Several more Imiri Sakabashira paintings
Another scan from The Box Man, plus an interesting note that the story is part of a longer work and has been "excerpted from the 2004 manga Akatai Otoko (Red Tights Man)"
Beautiful wallets designed by Imiri Sakabashira