Japanese culture, at least here in the west, seems to be portrayed as fairly monolithic. When the current lament of lazy youth is heard, it refers to the seemingly inability that Magnavox or some other company will have in maintaining their cutting edge efficiency. Perhaps for this reason, the stories of sewer workers and prostitutes’ husbands in Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s The Push Man are so shocking; we see a side of Japanese society that obviously exists, but is almost always hidden. In a culture of conformity like Japan, an individual can be more lonely and isolated than one can imagine.
The sixteen stories here are consistent in their style. Many are set in an industrial Japanese city and feature a mostly-silent man who works in a factory. For example, in the first story, ‘Piranha,’ a factory worker comes home to his wife, and she tells him she wants a million yen to start her own business. He reads in the newspaper about an insurance payout when a bus rolls over, and the next morning he thrusts his arm into his machine. He gets a million yen as compensation for the ‘accident,’ and his wife is happy. He now stays home while she works, and entertains himself by buying some piranha fish. Soon she starts complaining about him sitting around all day looking at his fish, and threatens to leave him. He becomes furious and grabs her arm, forcing it in the fish tank. When he lets go, it is covered in blood, and she leaves him. He kicks over the fish tank and goes searching for a new job at another factory, this time one especially for the disabled.
All of the stories are dark in tone, showing people hurting each other, failing to communicate, cheating, selling themselves or having their hopes dashed. It is often sexual desire or the duplicity of women that cause men to rush into disaster. However Tatsumi is not a misogynist. The men's downfall stems not only from women, but also from their own lust, aggression and stupidity, and so the author is an equal-opportunity misanthrope.
Like all Japanese comics, they were originally printed to be read from right to left, but as editor Adrian Tomine explains in the introduction, such a layout is usually met hostilely by Western audiences, so Tatsumi rearranged each panel to be read in the traditional Western way. This works fairly well, as the frames are all independent of one another, yet I think I would have preferred to read it in the original layout. I disagree that Westerners are inherently hostile to the format; take a look at the Manga section of the bookstore the next time you’re there.
I decided to read Tatumi’s work because I realize that I have almost no knowledge of Eastern comics and wanted to rectify that. However, instead of reading authentic Japanese comics, I got the Americanized version that doesn’t help me gain any insight into how the comics are laid out, a particular research interest of mine. I suppose I will have to seek out an education in Eastern layout through another artist.
Tomine edited this book as well as others, expected to be released by Drawn & Quarterly once a year. While I enjoyed this collection, the brevity of the pieces coupled with reading them in a condensed timeframe caused a bit of overkill. In the second collection, Abandon the Old in Tokyo, the stories are more substantial, and I am looking forward to that.