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Abandon The Old In Tokyo
posted October 10, 2006
Drawn and Quarterly, Hardcover, 225 pages, $19.95, September 2006
It's hard to imagine what the stories in Abandon The Old In Tokyo
must have read like when originally published in 1970. What little I know about Japan at the time is that the country was in the middle of a massive economic renewal period; none of that is felt here. Although the impulse for more mature material was beginning to gain a groundswell of support, Japan's comics culture of that year was still largely devoid of works adhering to Yoshihiro Tatsumi's idiosyncratic take on the slice-of-life drama, an approach unique enough the cartoonist could 13 years earlier coin his own name for the kind of work he was doing (gekiga) and have it stick. Even reading the first volume of Drawn and Quarterly's English translations done in annual form, The Push Man and Other Stories
felt like an historical exercise for many of us, because of the overwhelming curiosity surrounding the little-seen comics. We knew Tatsumi's comics were different, and that they embodied many of the literary values that were mirrored in some of the greater western graphic novels of the next few decades, but we didn't know what they would feel like, how they would look, what emotional buttons would be pushed.
We know what Tatsumi's comics are like now, and with this second volume, we have a clearer picture of how good the best of them can be. Tatsumi's protagonists tend to buffeted by several forces at once, everything from overwhelming economic circumstances to workplace impotency to feelings of parental responsibility to inexplicably personal sexual impulses. This is mirrored in the tall buildings that pop up again in the stories, just as the universality of the situations presented are mirrored in the crowd scenes and character designs. Tatsumi's particular genius is in how he chooses to show people reacting to such forces at the most crucial times. Tatsumi pairs a calm, wide-eyed cognizance of human behavior with a ruthless awareness that what these characters want to do, even what they end up doing, may fail to guarantee a favorable outcome. The best stories in this volume, "Beloved Monkey" and "Forked Road," paint intricate pictures that reveal the limits of intention, cutting into narrative momentum to hammer home the argument that we are possibly not as much in control as we think. Tatsumi knows there are impulses and tastes and conditions out there that may seize us, or sweep us away, or hold us in their mouth without our ever realizing it. It's a side of life many of us refuse to consider; Tatsumi's best work suggests we are poorer for this neglect.