Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Hey, Ho, Abandon the Old in Tokyo
ABANDON THE OLD IN TOKYO
Art and story by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Published by Drawn and Quarterly Books, 2006
Approximately 200 pages; $19.95 USD Retail
$13.57 from amazon.com
"Over four decades ago, Yoshihiro Tastumi expanded the horizons of comics storytelling by using the visual language of manga to tell gritty, literary short stories about the private lives of everyday people." - From the promotional blurb on the back cover.
Eight short tales comprise this nicely-printed and bound collection of black and white stories about the ill fortunes of denizens of a threatening and cold Japan. Tatsumi invariably draws the male and female characters in a generic and repetitious manner, though each tale is a different piece of absurd theatre with its own distinct story. It's as if a single character who looks like this man:
Is given a mission to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune over and over through five of the eight tales (in the other three, the lead character is drawn in a different manner).
In nearly each tale the main character has his or her humanity stripped and degraded, like a blind man falling down a tall staircase, but not as slapstick but as a literati event. Alienated from a bewildering society these characters cannot join, the protagonists silently put up with nonsense ruining their lives, impotent and overwhelmed, the visual cue of facial sweat appearing whenever the tension rises, and these characters sweat a lot.
For example, in the 29 page Beloved Monkey, a nameless factory worker meets a woman named Reiko at a zoo, unbeknownst to him she is a "hostess girl" (apparently a quasi-prostitute) and the factory worker resigns his job, throwing away his complacent day to day existence with his pet monkey (with whom, he says, he only ever actually feels human) and his fantasy girlfriend (a pinup on his apartment wall, for whom he fantasized while listening to records) in an effort to attain some sort of normal human relationship. It all leads to disaster, death and madness. Not that this fellow was "normal" to begin with, despite the tag-line about these Tatsumi stories being about "everyday people." Reality crashes in on the phantasy escapes of the character like the "ka-boom!" of the construction site near his apartment that awakens him each morning.
"But all it needs is a simple repair"
Generally unable to speak, Tatsumi's people are drawn to ironic or symbolic ruin by pressures of modern life and their own disjointed humanity. Though one story is specifically about murder ("The Hole") the theme of Tatsumi's tales is the desolation of human connectivity, or perhaps the general literary theme of "modern alienation."
As romantic as Hemingway, if his fatalism was multiplied by a hundred, and as dark as Poe, if his stories were denuded of the spider-webbed supernatural, Tatsumi chronicles unstable mental environments that masquerades as "everyday people," moving clock-like to doom in a mundane cityscape of shadow and concrete. After a few stories, the reader can easily predict that more catastrophe awaits in the stories that follow, though in each case Tatsumi has ingeniously wrought a foible-thick human staging for each tale.
Unintended (and some intentional) humor pops up from time to time, as in these panels:
Note: he's not smiling. And no, nothing good is going to happen!
This collection of small, human-sized disaster is a piece of comics history, as all the tales were drawn by Yoshihiro Tatsumi in 1970, a deliberate effort to use the visual energy and language of Japanese manga to tell stories but not as manga, but as (in a term created by Tatsumi) Gekiga, i.e., "dramatic pictures."
He certainly has succeeded, though, as the back-of-the-book interview between Tatsumi and Adrian Tomine shows, Tatsumi's effort to "represent reality," is problematic. These characters are mute and sheep-like as they stumble to whatever fate Tatsumi has designed for them, while secondary characters laugh and exhibit liveliness that by its mere presence mocks the self-importance of the main subjects.
The exception to this is "The Hole" which is a straight-forward murder that also posits a question about gender relationships that certainly no murder will resolve. It is a visually contemplative story, though savage.
The artwork is well-done, as the point of the generic styling for the characters helps to make them actually more human. Tatsumi takes pains with inanimate objects more often, delineating them with care and shadow effects. Somehow this makes the humans seem even that much more transient.
Sadness coupled with terror marks the black and white confines of Tatsumi's world in Abandon the Old in Tokyo, and if there is any light or hope in these pages, I failed to find it.
Enlarge the page images below by clicking.
DRAWN AND QUARTERLY has a page on this book here.
Original page April 2007