This is a collection of stories about the private lives of ordinary, working-class Japanese men who are struggling to make ends meet – performing menial and physically laborious jobs – offered to us without any hint of judgement.
An uncanny phenomenon prevalent throughout this stunningly illustrated book is that these men aren’t often given even a single spoken line in their own stories. They act as mere observers and listeners, subjected to both ridicule and indifference as they go about their days.
Some stories like ‘Bedridden’ have startling revelations that are equal part shocking and tragic. Some like ‘Disinfection’ envelope you in a vicious circle of detachment and ennui.
By his own admission – because his stories didn’t receive acknowledgment when they were being produced – Tatsumi felt like an outcast himself. That drew his interest towards characters who were drifters and outsiders themselves, living on the fringes of Japan’s enormous metropolis.
The Push Man and Other Stories is Drawn & Quarterly’s first collection of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s work in translation, a project made possible thanks to the painstaking efforts undertaken by Adrian Tomine – my favourite contemporary cartoonist – whose own work has been influenced by Tatsumi’s ways of looking at the world.
The cityscapes of Yoshihiro Tatsumi pic.twitter.com/szdctrsepM— Minovsky (@MinovskyArticle) March 23, 2017
Tatsumi’s haunted, melancholic men inhibit equally gloomy spaces – apartments, cafes, laboratories, railway platforms, and automobile workshops. Nearly all the men manage to earn the reader’s sympathy, but they become appalling or revolting with as much ease too.
The artist doesn’t want you to like or hate or even relate with any of these people, instead he just wants you to see. Like looking at a galaxy of stars in the faraway sky, whose movements you can trace if you pay attention but cannot get any closer. It helps immensely that the artwork is minimal, monochromatic, and leaves the reader with a feeling of discomfort mixed with ambiguity.
Yoshihiro Tatsumi passed away. His beautiful comics inspired me to be serious about making comics, rest in peace. pic.twitter.com/bNYwVQYI3M— Andrew Lorenzi (@AndrewAvocado) March 8, 2015
Tatsumi’s was a post-war, sombre world; his work a reflection of the grief-ridden Japan – still reeling from the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tomine writes in the Introduction that “he is considered the ‘grandfather of Japanese alternative comics’, and that 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.”
But he’s an artist who doesn’t require these accolades to infiltrate and affect a reader’s life. All it takes is a few panels on a page and a group of missable, mundane people who may be on the verge of defeat but haven’t given up yet.