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Dark tales of a neglected Tokyo underclass

by David Cozy

ABANDON THE OLD IN TOKYO by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, edited and designed by Adrian Tomine, introduction by Koji Suzuki. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 200 pp., $19.95 (cloth).

An old man is reduced by the debt that has ruined him to performing like a dog (“Why don’t you spin around three times and bark?”). He later finds relief performing with a dog. A younger man consumes an eel that, until captured, had swum free in the city’s sewers. A woman, face and breasts destroyed by botched cosmetic surgery, gets revenge on the men she had hoped to please with her altered features. A man who works among the consumer goods that urban Japanese have discarded hears a coworker say, “People get rid of anything old,” before going home to his aged and incontinent mother. A pet monkey is murdered when thrown together with his fellow primates at the zoo.

The above is a sampling of the bleakness one will encounter in “Abandon the Old in Tokyo,” the second collection of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s work to be made available in English. Readers familiar with the first, “The Push Man and Other Stories,” will not be surprised by the tone. Tatsumi is again writing about those members of Japanese society who would never soar with the bubble that had, when these stories first appeared, begun to inflate.

“Economic development was considered more important than the way people actually lived their lives,” Tatsumi remembers of that time, and this goes a long way toward explaining his view of the world.

Given that he is writing about an era when business was nurtured in Japan in a way that poor people’s lives were not, it is hardly surprising that Tatsumi’s vision is far from sanguine.

“The Push Man” and “Abandon the Old in Tokyo” are similar not only in their dark take on the world and their concern with the lower working class, but also in other ways. There can be no doubt that the drawings — generally more important in Tatsumi’s work than the words — are by the same hand, and almost all the stories in each collection feature what editor and designer Adrian Tomine calls the “archetypal Tatsumi character,” a laborer, usually sporting the vaguely military working-man’s uniform that one still sees in Japan. This archetype appears in different stories but is not intended to be the same person. Rather, the nonrealistic style in which he is drawn allows us to see him as a sort of every-prole.

He lives in a dingy room (“I’ve got my girl by my unmade bed” — the “girl” is a pin-up), and commutes through a comfortless city to a job where he will, for small wages, crawl through sewers, gather garbage, or run a machine in a factory where “it’s too loud to talk so there’s no need for conversation.”

In the story that opens “Abandon the Old in Tokyo,” however, he has shed his laborer’s uniform and become a turtleneck-wearing cartoonist. Whether this should be considered a step up is unclear, but even supposing that it is, one descends a ladder much more easily than one climbs it.

When we meet the protagonist of this tale he is, victim of a bad stomach, squatting over a toilet realistically rendered in a way that Tatsumi’s gritty backgrounds, but not his human beings, usually are. When, a couple of pages later, the cartoonist is fired, we guess that the tension that drove him to the toilet has its source in the job he has lost writing an ongoing story for a children’s magazine. Relieved of this job, though, his stomach is no stronger, and he finds himself, again and again, inside the stalls of public restrooms. He notices in these refuges the graffiti, typically crude and sexual.

“I imagined what it was like to scrawl stuff like this,” floats above the cartoonist as he squats and studies it in one frame. In the next he concludes “For some reason, people were compelled to do it,” and we are carried back several pages in the story to when, having turned in the last installment of the children’s serial, he reflects, “There was a time when all I wanted to do was draw manga . . . but that was 10 years ago. I no longer feel compelled at all.”

Soon enough that lost compulsion is replaced by the new one he has discovered in the quiet and comfortable stalls. The last frame of the story contains only the words “a pervert” above a rendering of a marker half-sunk in, it appears, the toilet.

Tatsumi cautions against reading his work as autobiography, but given that he here depicts as equally compelling the urge to create manga and the urge to scrawl obscenities on bathroom walls, and that the artist’s tool ends up in the toilet, one guesses that his view of his profession is ambiguous at best. One is grateful, though, that he has given in to his compulsion, and looks forward to more from this dark master.