I’ve always been a little hesitant of the “hidden influences” theory of popular culture—the idea that the real driving forces behind all the things we’re surrounded by are not the prime movers themselves (U2, the Beatles, the Stones, Elvis, etc.), but the people they took their cues from. I’m not against the theory in the abstract, because it makes an awful lot of sense. Consider the number of bands who hit it big after being inspired to do their thing by people who were dismissed or ignored entirely at the time: could The Ramones have been possible without the vastly less famous New York Dolls, for instance? My main reason for being touch-and-go about the theory mostly revolves around the way some people have run with it to such a degree that they ignored common sense—Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, for instance, has some good ideas about such things buried beneath hundreds of pages of tendentious twaddle.
When you come up against one of those influential sources first-hand, though, the theories take a back seat to the raw thrill you get from the material itself. I got that charge while reading Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s The Push Man, not simply because this is the first time most English-language audiences will have ever read his work but because it seems virtually impossible that someone like this could not have influenced most anyone who read him. His work is that universal and accessible. For over thirty years Tatsumi has worked in manga, often for miserable money, creating comics with unvarnished surfaces but startling depths, and getting published mostly in magazines like Tezuka Osamu’s experimental-works outlet COM—places where a great many modern masters of the art themselves got their cues.
The Push Man is the first in a planned series of collections of Tatsumi’s work courtesy of graphic-novel publishers Drawn & Quarterly. The fact that there is more of his work outside of this one volume is in itself startling: I half-expected his career to have been brutally abbreviated, like Nathaniel West or Delmore Schwartz. No story in the book runs to more than sixteen pages or so, and none of them need to be more than that. They arrive, they deal a stinging blow, and leave.
The first story, “Piranha,” has within it the seeds for almost all the other stories in the volume. A man works in a sheet-metal factory, returning home at night to his resentful and self-important wife. She wants a million yen to open her own business. The next day, almost on a whim, he sticks his arm into the machinery and stares as it’s torn off. The million yen he gets from the insurance payout, he gives to his wife, who is tender to him again. No longer able to work, he buys a fishtank and fills it with piranhas. His wife’s new tenderness turns to scorn once more. Disgusted by her needling, he jams her arm into the tank; the fish attack her, as piranhas do, and she leaves him, as you would expect her to. The next day he goes back to the sheet-metal plant, which sports a new sign: “We Welcome the Disabled.”
The stories are so spare that the smallest details take on massive value. The man barely speaks a word through the whole of the story—and, similarly, almost none of the other heroes in the book have much to say. It’s the people around them who put words in their mouths, assign motives to their actions, see more (or less) than what’s really there. When he shoves her arm in the tank, he’s not trying to get rid of her—he’s trying to make her empathize with him, make her feel what he went through to provide for her. She has no empathy, however: all she sees are the deranged actions of a crippled lunatic. The only time she is warm to him is when he settles her debts for her, a gesture which does not last.
“Make-Up”: The schism between inner and outer lives
is never deeper or wider than it is with sex.
Other stories have the same schism between what’s inside and what’s expressed. “Projectionist,” the next story, deals with a glum middle-aged man who works as a pornography dealer. He brings a projector to private business parties and shows (illegal) porn films as entertainments. The audiences are aroused, but he doesn’t care; he’s seen the same movies so many times they no longer have the element of novelty. His own sex life with his wife is equally drained. One night he spies a crude sexual drawing in a lavatory, becomes aroused, runs home, and makes love ferociously. Why the drawing and not the movies, or even the real thing, for that matter? Possibly because what fascinates each of us is forever a private thing, and incomprehensible to the outside world.
Sexual frustrations and socially unacceptable urges drive most of Tatsumi’s characters. In “Make-up,” a handsome young office-worker is married to a homely cocktail waitress, but one day he dresses himself as a woman and soon finds himself the object of another woman’s affections. She doesn’t mind that he’s a man—in fact, it only fascinates her all the more, especially since she in turn is married to a much older man. The office-worker returns home, his wife complements him on suddenly being all the more “alive,” and the charade presumably continues behind both spouse’s backs. Neither one could begin to explain to the other what is really happening or why—or could they? Certainly not in the world they live in, which frowns on anything vaguely “abnormal.”
There are times when Tatsumi’s stories veer towards conventional genres, but he always retains his particular perspective on his material. The ghastly “Bedridden,” for instance, has the form of a horror story, but in its few pages it manages to touch on things that Uziga Waita never even came close to across the length of a whole book. “Telescope” starts vaguely like a peeping-tom thriller but centers itself back firmly on its character’s pathologies instead of on plot mechanics. And “My Hitler” starts (as many of the other stories do) with a strained marriage, but buries deeper and finds more.
The Push Man has something to offer both seasoned manga readers as well as people who know nothing of the stuff. It’s always interesting to see people reared on more accessible, “conventional” manga like Rurouni Kenshin or Naruto bump into work like Tatsumi’s for the first time; they’re often surprised that work this confrontational and emotionally naked comes from the same cultural wellsprings that can also give them such fiercely playful escapism. People who have never read manga before are also likely to be just as startled—not because the work is so alien, but because it hits home harder than they imagined it might.xcaption="Make-Up": The schism between inner and outer lives
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind