The Push Man and Other Stories by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Since my work has been largely unavailable in English-speaking countries, I doubt most readers have heard of me. I myself am a very normal person. Please do not interpret these stories as representative of the author’s personality.
— Yoshihiro Tatsumi, December 2004

The appendix for The Push Man features a brief written Q&A conducted with Tatsumi by the book’s editor, Adrian Tomine, from which the above quote was taken. As I’m the type who likes to absorb such addendum before striking out into the body of a book, these words initially held no significance. It struck me as another example of the very circumscribed artistic modesty, which is native to the Japanese, and in no way indicative of any unusual properties of the stories themselves.

And then I read the book.

There’s a peculiar dichotomy to Japanese culture, wherein the massive edifice of conventional society is perpetually shadowed by a deep existential twin, a nightmarish flipside where industrialized conformity and economic advancement — the country’s ruling mantras since the end of the second world war — are seen as purely negative virtues. The suffocating nihilism of certain Japanese horror films comes to mind, featuring a rejection of normalcy that is not merely purgative or transformative but cataclysmic. While there are no fantastical elements present in Tatsumi’s stories, the overall sense of dread and undisguised revulsion at the human condition which pervade his worldview are strong enough to evoke the most horrific of reactions.

The world Tatsumi’s characters inhabit is a world not often seen in Japanese media (or at least that of it which makes its way over here): the blue-collar world of sewer workers, factory drones and outright low-life criminals. There are no middle-class office-men or glamorous Yakuza crime lords here. The situations and dilemmas are instantly recognizable in their shape but exotic in form, the perpetual predicaments of society’s bottom-rung. Seen through the rituals and conventions of an alien culture, the results are deeply disturbing.

In “Piranha”, a man is chastened by his prostitute wife for not providing enough money for her to open her own parlor, so he mangles himself at his factory — intentionally losing an arm in a metal-punching machine — to claim one million Yen in insurance money. But the money doesn’t ease the resentment between them, and during an argument he shoves her hand into a piranha tank where it is almost devoured.

In “Black Smoke”, a man rendered impotent in a car accident and working at a garbage-smelting plant is constantly harangued by his bitter, drunken wife. Finally, after having to dispose of the aborted fetuses of one of his wife’s affairs, he leaves her to sleep while a hot iron slowly sets fire to a momentarily abandoned shirt. He watches their house burn from the vantage of a distant hill. His first words for the entire story — spoken in the next-to-last panel — are: “It’s a filthy city. Everything here is trash. Eventually someone’s gonna burn it.”

I didn’t pick these examples for any particular brutality. The sordid elements of society are on display throughout the volume, be it in the overt criminal element of psychotic assassins, pornographers and sex slavers, or the sordid thoughts of wayward and desperate men in more ordinary pursuits. Tatsumi’s personal caveat makes more sense in light of the almost endless stream of abortions, reeking sewers, sexual impotence and suicide. It’s hard not to see patterns emerge from these relentlessly unpleasant elements: the powerless are confronted with their figurative or literal impotence, and respond either in rage at their surroundings or at themselves. The dimensions of the world around them are forbidding and vast, and their own dreams, pitifully small though they may be, are forever unattainable. It would be easy to imagine Tatsumi as a bitter, broken man, based merely on the unrelenting blackness of his stories.

(It should be noted, interestingly, that the one exception to this pattern featured in the book — one story out of sixteen — is “Make-Up”, about an otherwise normal man who finds sexual freedom by dressing up as a women. Although the man is cheating on his wife in order to conduct an affair with another woman while dressed as a woman himself, there is no hint of impending cataclysm, and it ends only on the slightly ambiguous note that his personal liberation must be kept secret from his loved ones.)

The majority of the stories, culled from Tatsumi’s output for the biweekly magazine Gekiga-Young during the year 1969, are brief, at only eight pages. Later on in the book a few stories stretch out from this format, and the resulting expansion in format produces a corresponding expansion in thematic heft. The book’s early stories establish an almost formulaic rhythm, introducing their scenarios with as much narrative economy as possible and merely allowing their characters to be drawn to their fate with the irresistible gravity of cruel destiny. Like the classic EC horror comics, the dread is palpable as well as inevitable, and the pervading sense of inescapable despair becomes almost comical in repetition.

If the book was comprised of nothing but shockingly depressing eight-page sketches like these, the book would imply a precocious talent limited by the scope of a cruel imagination, an artist gifted with an enviably perspicacious insight into human misery, but the equivalent of a one-trick pony. But the book ends with a pair of longer pieces — “Who Are You?” and “My Hitler” — that offer Tatsumi the opportunity to build on the grim foundation of the previous stories while introducing a strong element of narrative lyricism through (comparatively) extended sequences. The results are simply breathtaking.

“Who Are You?”, especially, is the book’s inarguable centerpiece. The story of a sullen man, obsessed with his own powerlessness as well as a giant river scorpion captured in a tin can, it’s a tense psychological thriller that manages in the space of a mere nineteen pages to produce a nauseatingly surreal momentum. In particular the jumbled chronology, which foreshadows important thematic elements throughout the story to create an escalating sense of tension, allows Tatsumi the freedom to interpolate the characters’ own perceptions through the very fabric of the narrative. This type of subjectivity is one of the hidden strengths of the comics form, and when Tatsumi is allowed the freedom to explore these ideas he reveals himself to be nothing less than the modern master promised by the book’s ad copy.

The Push Man is the first in a proposed series of chronological translations of Tatsumi’s material. While nowhere near complete — according to Tomine, Tatsumi was far too prolific for a complete collection to be feasible in America — these highlights cannot help but imply the presence of a massive, profoundly important body of work as yet unseen by Western eyes. It is my deepest hopes that sales of The Push Man warrant further volumes, because Yoshihiro Tatsumi has earned his place in the as yet very small pantheon of translated Japanese cartoonists whose work demands our unequivocal attention.