Filth of the City

Abandon the Old in Tokyo

It was an idyllic lunch in the city, one particular day this past week. The sky was blue and the temperature was cool. More people than average were milling about the giant fountain in the middle of town, since the water had been turned a bright pink for breast cancer awareness. The pink contrasted beautifully with the deep blue of the sky and the ivory white of surrounding buildings. Colors were vivid and bleeding everywhere that day, in the belching sunlight; the green of the parks, and the tar of the roads, and the red of the abortion trucks cruising around where I’d need to cross the street to get my cheap food.

I don’t know what, if anything, is in the abortion trucks. I don’t know if they ever truly go anywhere, or if they just circle around the parks and malls at the lunchtime hour in the city. I guess I could go research the topic. But what's always obvious is that their every visible side is bedecked with hard candy cherry red photography of fetuses in various states of dismemberment or pulping, each shot stamped with the one-word sentence “Choice.” There is usually a coin, a nickel or dime or quarter, carefully positioned in the shot to emphasize the proper dimensions of the fetus. Often the image closes in on a detached, grasping finger, or some other recognizable bit of human anatomy, though sometimes a sort of pleading outline is achieved, the head severed from the neck in a pool of liquid, its hue not unlike that of the fountain a few steps back.

I looked at the abortion trucks the first time, you bet. I’m sure most people do, even those who weren’t shown videotapes of similar tone and imagery in junior high. Oh, but on days like that of last week, gore posters on wheels just can’t divert the energy of the populace. We all walk around in the city air, viscera driving by; you can’t keep your eyes on anything too long.

Scenes like this remind me of the comics of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, and his repeating panels of crowds trudging through life, man-made structures looming above and around in inky shadow. Many of the protagonists in his short stories look almost exactly the same, and the city accordingly cradles their seething and their secrets in the same way, though nominally they are different people and hold different jobs and live different lives. Few notice the blood around them, but Tatsumi takes us along with his obsessively similar characters for quick jaunts through obsession and cruelty, and grand exploitation. Abandon the Old in Tokyo is Drawn & Quarterly’s second hardcover collection of Tatsumi’s short comics, and while it sees the artist move into more dreamlike, allegorical, and outright surreal territory then last year’s The Push Man and Other Stories, the tone remains largely unchanged.

I’d strongly recommend reading through Ring and Dark Water author Koji Suzuki’s short introduction before leaping into the book proper, as it contains a good deal of relevant thought; primarily, Suzuki puzzles over how a North American audience could understand these works, which are very specifically set in the modernized milieu of a technologically hopscotching Japan in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. Suzuki smartly points to the use of then-modern technology in several of Tatsumi’s stories as both evidence and agents of change, facilitating the perversions and compulsions of Tatsumi’s characters while at the same time acting as extensions of their tortured inner being. The Tatsumi character is always besieged by change in his environment (and yes, it is usually a he), leaving him in a helpless state of flux and forcing him to confront the gnawing that has probably always been in his soul. There is a real fear of change in these stories, an uncertainty that Suzuki insists was national at the time (he brands the book as a whole “nostalgic”), but Tatsumi is no sour grapes traditionalist - one gets the distinct feeling that the grime and disgust seeping from his characters’ pores would have found their way out regardless of aid from new technologies and the modern way of doing things. Here, it’s just the perfect excuse.

Take, for example, the title story. It’s a grim little 31-page potboiler about a young man who’s constantly at the beck and call of his sickly, demanding mother, whom he cares for at his home. He’s engaged to a nice woman who’s never seen his apartment. He works in demolition, literally tearing down the old and making way for the new (Tatsumi is not one for subtlety on any level). He hears from coworkers that the modern way of doing things is to throw out the old and embrace the latest things. And what a fine opportunity it seems to use his pay to rent a nice quiet place, away from the hustle, and leave the screeching old woman there to rot with the rest of the old ways! Ah, but like an EC character of yore, nothing goes quite the way Our (Anti-)Hero has planned, largely due to his own withered, momma’s boy nature; it’s no accident that the only words he utters in the story are “Mom, mom! AAAAAAHHH

Pulpy, low-down stuff on the surface; that goes for nearly all of Tatsumi’s work thus far seen in English. Even leaving aside the cultural difficulties detailed by Suzuki, these are often nasty works that will actively repel a goodly number of readers through either their explicit content or their disconcertingly simple nature; in a less skilled creator’s hands, this material might have been merely repetitive and sensationalistic, a hodgepodge of grotesque non-stories about numbingly hopeless people. But even in the tale just described, Tatsumi’s simple visual style takes many opportunities to present amazing beauty and poetic grace, like the torn-from history image of the young man carrying the old woman on his back through the forest, a journey he will hauntingly repeat through the chaos of city traffic and human resistance in the end.

There’s better stories too. My favorite is The Washer, a profoundly distressing 14-page barrage of dream logic and queasy horror. An aging window washer, working on a nice new high-rise, glimpses his secretary daughter having sex with her boss. He becomes obsessed with the idea of ‘washing her clean,’ much in the way he scrubs those windows to a shine. “The sky is so filthy. Doesn’t matter how many times I wipe the windows.” But the plot doesn’t matter; what’s striking is Tatsumi’s use of wild narrative jumps, intentionally jarring visual cues (you don’t need to look pregnant to give birth), and cutting images of sadness and madness, and youth being born into a world determined to coat them in grime right from the beginning, while the rich and powerful fuck their time away with an ever-replaceable series of consumable people.

Tatsumi does occasionally provide opportunity for salvation. Unpaid is a particularly choice 16-page charmer about a ruined old man who continues to visit the offices of his failed business, even though it’s closed down. He can’t afford to pay his increasingly angry ex-workers, and he can’t physically satisfy his wife at home. He feels like he’s been brought down to the level of a dog, and eventually embraces his role, meeting up with a toothless, weeping show dog down at the local Pet Appreciation Club, and doing with her what the dogs do together. In case you’re wondering, that means he has sex with the dog. And it’s triumphant bestiality: finally, he’s gone so low that nothing in the world can bother him. You can’t go beneath rock bottom, so his cares float out the window once the last vestiges of dignity are gone. A slightly more upbeat fate awaits the young protagonist of Forked Road, who associates the glowing light of tram cars with his deep-rooted disgust for sex, which is tied to his latent jealousy of a good friend who was spoiled by his mother and never cared for school. It’s another dreamy, nearly formless piece, featuring some of Tatsumi’s most lavishly rendered townscapes; all that’s for certain is that the trams stop running in the end, and the young man is given a choice of which track to follow on foot.

In an interview with series editor Adrian Tomine included in the back of the book, Tatsumi is extremely forthcoming about the environment his work had to grow in. He may have coined the term gekiga in 1957 to set ‘dramatic pictures’ apart from the ‘irresponsible pictures’ of manga, but blazing trails doesn’t necessarily lead to financial reward. As a result, Tatsumi’s works were made to spread across seemingly any magazine or anthology that would offer him work, and it’s fascinating to see how his personal concerns maintain their consistency across the content demands of various outlets. Forked Road, for example, appeared in the legendary alternative comics anthology Garo, a forum for personal stories and experimental expression. Another of the Garo stories included in this volume is The Hole, an excursion into outright fable, a rare (to us) Tatsumi story set entirely outside the city that still manages to encompass the scarring ways of progress while pulling off a cutting critique of the male gaze upon women in Japanese society. Meanwhile, Unpaid is said to have originated in a cheap, nameless ‘adult’ magazine. The aforementioned Abandon the Old in Tokyo actually ran in a shounen anthology, targeted at kids. And yet, despite a bit more coherency to the plot and a toning down of the explicitness, there’s not a lot of difference between Tatsumi’s kid-sold work of the time and his alleged porn output. His artistic eye sees through all classification.

Maybe that’s why the most telling story in this book is the first one, Occupied (another Garo piece), a seemingly semi-autobiographical semi-comedy about a hapless comics artist whose tremendously unpopular works are about to lose him his job at a kid-targeted magazine. He also suffers from intense bowel problems, and thus spends plenty of time on in the public john, where he becomes intrigued by bathroom graffiti. The janitors always try to wash it away, but the anonymous obscenities of the public always reassert themselves. The artist soon finds financial salvation in an offer to draw porno comics for his living, and he finds his hand freed to draw perverted things everywhere, even on the bathroom wall. Hey, he’s just chronicling what he knows from life. The clean wall is a lie. And good, clean society chases him away in the end (more semi-autobiographical comics need to end with the artist’s stand-in fleeing from the threat of police action, by the way), but we get the feeling that neither this shamed character nor his creator will ever quite be stopped.

Indeed, Tatsumi produced many more comics. Most of them will probably not be made available in English; I think D&Q’s series of Tatsumi books is tentatively scheduled to end with the next release. Older manga remain a hard sell in North America, and even among those that might be interested, Tatsumi will probably drive some away. He’s absolutely not for everyone; he’s the first to admit it. But his is undoubtably a powerful and individual voice in comics creation, and worthy of wide exposure. Ever the humble one, Tatsumi thanks D&Q in his interview, calling them his benefactors. They are our benefactors too, for making a portion of this fascinating, viscerally and intellectually affecting work available for sampling.