Glimpses of working-class Japan come to life in this collection of Yoshihiro Tatsumi's short stories from 1969. Factory workers, mechanics, cleaners, train pushers, and other day laborers struggle through personal issues, often with questionable results. After the workday is done, they must deal with their wives and partners, their romantic and sexual concerns, or sometimes just what they want to do for the rest of their lives.
If manga is so thematically diverse, then why is it that you can't swing a dead animal mascot without hitting an epic storyline about a gifted young boy on a fated quest? Scholars and fans proclaim this nebulous ideal of "something for everyone" in manga, but the current market says otherwise. Blame it on Osamu Tezuka, whose most popular titles set the foundation for today's heroes who kick, punch, slice, shoot, pilot, and spellcast their way through steroid-injected adventures. Or the Fabulous Forty-Niners, who begat generations of bright-eyed high school girls angsting over far-fetched but heartbreaking relationships. At the same time, however, Yoshihiro Tatsumi was leading a little revolution of his own, coining the word "gekiga" to describe a form of manga where the pictures aren't quite so whimsical. The dramatic stories in The Push Man are a welcome addition to the Western understanding of Japanese comics.
It's been over thirty years since these stories came out, but the main themes, such as companionship, self-worth, and family, are still universal issues today. Although the protagonist is always a young working male, their personal problems change from story to story, be it a wayward spouse, an unwanted baby, sexual gratification, or even a troublesome sewer rat. The time period only becomes apparent in the humble industrial settings, and surprisingly enough, the page count. The small-time seinen magazine that published these works in 1969 only gave Tatsumi eight pages per issue, forcing him to make a concise point—and so he does, often with a strong emotional hit. The troubled men in these stories all solve their problems with one swift action, but the results are rarely heroic or uplifting. More often they're morally ambiguous or downright tragic: injury is real, loss is real, death is real, and when someone dies, they stay dead.
Even the babies stay dead. Dead or abandoned babies are a strange recurring theme in this volume; as a central story element, it does produce a very powerful response, but when used repeatedly, it seems like a novice storyteller going for a quick emotional sucker punch. Actual newborn corpses are depicted in at least two stories, and there are a few more where an expectant mother must choose whether to have a child or not. A more conspicuous flaw, however, is in the repetitive characters that shuffle through each story. Apparently every working-class man in Japan back then was a humble, quiet doormat, and he always had an irresponsible cheating wife (or girlfriend) chiding him for having no self-esteem. Such downtrodden personalities are naturally more sympathetic, but again it seems like a handy-dandy dramatic device for garnering pity. Even the longer stories in the book, "Who Are You?" and "My Hitler," use the same formula.
Like most artists of his generation, Tastumi's visual style is more rough-edged and simplified than the polished, stylized manga art of today. However, genuine artistry still shows through the dated techniques; the backgrounds are full of realistic details, evoking a true sense of industrial Japan. Tatsumi also creates shades, textures and moods with some judicious inking (mass-market screentones weren't around yet), whether through regimented parallel lines or densely packed cross-hatching. Even the utilitarian panels—back when squares and rectangles were still well-behaved in manga—shift in size and spacing to create the right kind of emotional weight. The only problem is in the character designs, where the monotony might lead a novice reader to think, "Wait, so these stories are all about the same guy?" Admittedly, the protagonist in each story does look like the same guy—a square-jawed, wide-eyed fellow. Perhaps it's meant to symbolize the Everyman, or maybe it's just Tatsumi saying "This is the kind of character I can draw the fastest and easiest." The women are slightly more varied, but there are still plenty of look-alikes among the round-faced, pointy-nosed ladies that inhabit these pages.
Manga purists (who will probably be the main audience for this book at first) are sure to cringe at Drawn and Quarterly's decision to flip the book into a left-to-right format. Despite the publisher's justifications—that Tatsumi re-arranged the panels himself; that general readers inexperienced with manga will find this more accessible—it doesn't change the fact that the book reads, well, the wrong way round. It shows in a couple of sequences, like when people suddenly switch directions while walking, but the overall flow is still strong, and the number of times that dialogue gets misdirected can be counted on one hand. Production values are impeccable, with sturdy paper and high-quality ink bringing out the strong contrasts and effects in the art. The hardcover finish and $20 price tag may put off some readers, but it's books like this that decide who the real serious manga fans are.
As the manga debut for alternative comics publisher Drawn and Quarterly, The Push Man is an encouraging effort, and promises to be one of many more releases from Tatsumi. Although the stories hammer the same point over and over again, and seemingly with the same character each time, their brutal honesty and stark settings will be a refreshing change for readers who wonder whatever happened to the diversity of the artform. Let's hope that this publisher explores more gekiga and alternative titles, leading us further down an intriguing backroad on the manga landscape.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ An honest and down-to-earth antidote to melodramatic, steroid-injected manga everywhere.
- Stories and characters become repetitive after a while.
Rated: Teenagers (May contain bloody violence, bad language, nudity)
Story & Art: Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Anime News Network reviews THE PUSH MAN by TATSUMI