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Impotence and despair: Vintage manga about a world of beaten men
Tom Baker / Daily Yomiuri
The Push Man
By Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Translated by Yuji Oniki
Edited by Adrain Tomine
Drawn and Quarterly, 202 pp, 19.95 dollars
Life is not always about what you read in the newspapers. In 1969, for instance, the papers would have reported on Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and U.S. President Richard Nixon agreeing on Okinawa's return to Japan. There would have been stories about violent student protests, and mentions of Yasunari Kawabata having won the Nobel Prize in Literature the previous December. With memories of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics still relatively fresh, preparations were under way for Osaka Expo '70.
But also in 1969, a manga artist named Yoshihiro Tatsumi was busily writing stories about contemporary Japanese men to whom the above events meant nothing. Tatsumi's mostly working-class characters experience the Japan of their day at street level--or below it, in one story about a sewer cleaning man trudging through the twilit underground muck with a rake.
The main concerns of these men in society's lower reaches are paying the bills, getting laid and staving off despair. In each of the 16 stories translated into English in the collection The Push Man--released late last year by Canadian comics publisher Drawn and Quarterly--one or more of those three efforts goes horribly wrong.
Tatsumi's quietly desperate men live alone or with women who appear to be their common-law wives. We rarely if ever see any other family members, and the men rarely if ever have names. Anonymous urban plankton, they even look alike. The secondary characters have a variety of faces, but the protagonists fall into just two physical types.
Most of them are blue-collar workers with stout, bovine physiques, close-cropped hair and no necks to speak of. They have wide faces and round, buttonlike eyes that make them look vaguely like teddy bears. There are also a few low-level white-collar characters mixed in, with narrower faces, pointed chins and fuller, messier heads of hair. These skinny guys often look like boys dressed up in their absent fathers' clothes.
Some of these men do very bad things, but as their immature appearances suggest, they tend not to do them very well. On the whole, they are more sinned against than sinning. The primary emotion they arouse is pity, with horror at the cruelty they perpetrate or suffer coming second.
In one story, a factory worker deliberately thrusts his arm into a stamping machine in the hope of pleasing his woman with the insurance payout. She takes the money, but soon discards her maimed lover in favor of a man who still has all his limbs.
In another story, a garbageman not only discovers that his woman has had an abortion--long after a car-crash injury left him unable to do what it takes to father children--but he is forced by the circumstances of his job to personally, and tearfully, shovel the dead fetus into an incinerator.
In a less gruesome piece, a man living with a prostitute has to scramble into undignified hiding whenever one of her clients comes to visit. The serial cuckold finally wins a small measure of self-respect when he decides to leave her, releasing her pet bird on his way out. But the bird returns to its familiar cage, prompting the woman to confidently predict that her man will soon return to his.
Each of these bleak tales works very well on its own, but female treachery is such a constant element as to make the book as a whole feel misogynistic. Women are depicted as seductive sirens or horrid harridans, and men as their helpless victims--baffled, enslaved and undone by the magnetic power of female sexuality.
Two of the 16 stories appear to break from this pattern, only to reinforce it in the end. In one of them, the most bizarre in the book, a horrifically deformed woman is used as a sex slave by a series of men, making it a rare case in which males achieve the upper hand--albeit by deplorable means. Yet even here male power is illusory, with strong hints that the tortured woman brings inevitable doom to each of her successive masters.
Another story, the only one with anything remotely like a happy ending, involves a milquetoast office clerk living with a bar hostess. He secretly enjoys putting on her kimono and makeup, and when he ventures out in drag one night he soon finds himself propositioned--by a woman. His seducer turns out to be bisexual, and the two enjoy a satisfying fling. In this scene, a man knows contentment for once, but he has achieved it only by sloughing off maleness and experiencing female sexual power from the inside.
The final frame of the story reminds us that he and his newfound lover are each cheating on someone else. Eventually, someone is going to pay a price.
The Push Man, with its focus on 1969, is presented as the first volume in a quixotic effort by American comic book artist and Tatsumi admirer Adrian Tomine to produce a series of books, each showcasing English translations of the artist's work from a particular year. Considering that Tatsumi began his career in the 1950s and is still active today, a complete series would likely need its own bookcase.
Whether or not that comes to pass, The Push Man has literary heft of its own. The often brutal subject matter may turn some readers away, but Tatsumi's stories have an artistic expressiveness, philosophical coherence and dark, emotional weight that is undeniable.
(May. 7, 2006)