Japanese comics master Yoshihiro Tatsumi has a word of caution for readers of his new book The Push Man and Other Stories: “Please do not interpret these stories as representative of the author’s personality.”
Adrian Tomine, the editor of this revelatory collection of Tatsumi’s late-’60s manga (just out from Drawn & Quarterly), seconds the author’s concern in a recent interview: “Some of the content of these stories is pretty surprising, especially considering they were originally published over 30 years ago.” Among The Push Man‘s street-level protagonists are tongue-tied laborers who mutilate their prostitute girlfriends, a wife-abusing hit man with a weak stomach, a taciturn projectionist who traverses Japan to screen porn for corporate officers, and sewer workers who search for wayward treasures as they slog through underground streams clogged with rats, garbage, and aborted fetuses.
Not your father’s funny papers. Indeed, Tomine writes in the introduction that “Tatsumi’s work was comprised of compact, elliptical short stories which, like the best modern prose fiction, were simultaneously satisfying and open-ended.” (In contrast, America’s underground comix of this same era generally wallowed in spectacular depictions of sex and violence, as in R. Crumb’s autobiographical fantasias of shtupping mountainous Amazons and beheading repressive nuns.) Tomine says that Tatsumi’s lack of mainstream success “allowed him to be almost rebellious in his style.” But like the book’s title character, a subway worker whose job consists of shoving riders aboard overcrowded trains, Tatsumi’s countrymen are far too worn down for rebellion. Where Italo Calvino found humor and perseverance in the lumpen city dwellers of his poignant Marcovaldo stories, set in the working-class tumult of postwar Italy, Tatsumi’s blue-and no-collar toilers have grown up under the cloud of utter defeat suffered by their entire nation in 1945.
Tomine, a widely accomplished cartoonist himself (Optic Nerve, Summer Blonde), stresses Tatsumi’s sense of economy. “All of the stories hint at much more than they make explicit, which rewards repeated reading,” he says and as an example points to “Telescope,” a complex tale of voyeurism entwined with primal coercion. As with most of the 16 stories, it is told in eight spare black-and-white pages, and the final three panels are starkly beautiful evocations of the stillness that marks the boundary between life and death.
“Tatsumi devised a style that employed detail on an ‘as needed’ basis,” Tomine observes. “His characters are defined and expressive, but also simplified visually in a way that engages the reader far more than had they been drawn in a photo-realistic style.” Often these trenchant portrayals speak for characters too inarticulate to express their own stillborn hopes, a motif carried into every aspect of the art. Tomine emphasizes that Tatsumi “often draws very detailed backgrounds initially to set the scene but then eases up on this kind of detail as the scene progresses. Sometimes there are no backgrounds at all, but the stories all have a very specific, believable atmosphere.” In “Projectionist,” the socially stifled, middle-aged title character begins his journey amid a welter of calligraphically festooned paper lanterns and signs for bars and brothels. His trade, rendered only in quick flashes of breasts or thighs on a portable screen, has the execs mopping their brows while a secretary chokes with embarrassment. When he returns home to his frustrated wife, their sterile apartment building is reduced to a composition of blank, abstract shapes.
A fearless spelunker of the id, Tatsumi delves beneath the button-down uniformity of Japan’s legions of office drones. “Bedridden,” one of the longer pieces, plumbs the depravity of a salaryman who imprisons a deformed and crippled sex slave—never revealed amid her den of quilts and pillows—in his shuttered apartment. Speculating on why their homely, fortysomething colleague refuses to join them for aprés-work drinks and geishas, his officemates shrug, observing, “Yeah, he’s creepy.” When his secret is discovered, he tries to justify his vile behavior: “You must’ve heard of the ancient Chinese custom of footbinding—women were re-shaped to please men.” Shortly afterward he falls victim to a co-worker lusting to take over as the woman’s ninth “master.” This nightmare is realistically grounded by mundane street scenes edged with sagging awnings and a government ministry clotted by the weary queues of bureaucracy.
Tomine calls the now 70-year-old artist a trailblazer, noting that “there weren’t a lot of examples for him to follow in the world of Japanese comics in the ’60s.” He speculates that “it was probably Tatsumi’s own personality and convictions that led to his somewhat ‘underground’ sensibility, more than any external influence.” Japanese pop culture often seems a candy-coated parade of Hello Kitty plushies or garish anime depicting provocatively posed, doe-eyed schoolgirls, but these stories, done on the cheap back in the day, reveal an artist who was making comics that weren’t just adult, but truly mature.