Just as his friend Osamu Tezuka is the undisputed godfather of manga, Yoshihiro Tatsumi is the godfather of gekiga, it’s “alternative” cousin. Tatsumi coined the phrase gekiga, meaning “drama pictures,” to set it apart from the more whimsical manga, which loosely translates to “involuntary (or in spite of one’s self) pictures.” Publishing his work in underground magazines created exclusively for pay libraries, where readers would pay a fee to take these books home, Tatsumi helped usher in the creation of adult-themed comics in Japan and helped more experimental and mature manga gain a foothold in the market. His contributions helped manga become ingrained in the Japanese cultural consciousness, declaring comics aren’t just about giant robots and silly animals.
Collected from stories he wrote in 1969, Tatsumi’s THE PUSH MAN AND OTHER STORIES is about male rage, specifically, the rage of the post-WWII Japanese male. It belongs in the same category as the works of Tatsumi’s literary contemporaries, Nobel Prize laureate Kenzaburo Oe and samurai fetishist Yukio Mishima, who both suffered blows to their pride when the Japanese surrendered after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oe once wrote of listening to the Emperor’s surrender on the radio and realizing that the august and god-like Hirohito (whom Oe had feared as a boy) was just a mere mortal who spoke in a human voice, while Mishima lamented the feminization of the Japanese male in (Which he attributed to western influence) until ultimately committing ritual suicide after his failed coup attempt.
The destruction of their old way of life, the rise of western cultural imperialism, and just not fitting into the times they’re living in pervade the lives of the men in THE PUSH MAN AND OTHER STORIES. These men are impotent in relation to their women, work shit jobs, and in some cases (such as the handsome young salaryman in the story MAKE-UP) even manhood itself is a bit of a burden. These stories are about men searching not just for meaning, bur for freedom. They are all controlled by others’ perceptions of them and each precisely constructed eight-page vignette chronicles the choices they make to break free from their personal Hells. A cuckold rendered impotent by a car accident sets his house on fire while his wife sleeps in order to punish her infidelity. A man who feels trapped by his prostitute girlfriend sets her pet bird free and runs off with another woman. A young sperm donor takes matters into his own hands when his specimens are deemed unworthy. Their choices are always questionable, but they are attempts to form their own realities, to find paths divergent from the bleak ones they currently tread upon.
The fact that the protagonists are all drawn very similarly, that they are variations of the same person, is no accident in itself. The patterns that emerge from these stories are driven home much harder due to the fact that these men are the “same person.” From the ex-con who breaks into a U.S. military base to steal a gun because he “wanted something powerful” to the titular character of the book (whose job is to shoehorn the crowd of commuters onto the train by shoving them in), the characters in this collection desperately want to maintain their dignity as men, but find that it’s very hard for them to do so. For the most part, the men in these stories are silent, passive participants in their stories. None of them control their own fates, but are victims of them.
What is astounding is that before Tatsumi, stories like this didn’t exist in comic book form. He was in a completely different country on another continent and created his own revolution and genre. These stories feel as fresh and current as they most likely did in 1969 and it’s hard not to realize the magnitude of this man’s accomplishments in light of these facts. Some comics are reprinted for nostalgia and some are reprinted for posterity’s sake, but comics like Tatsumi’s are reprinted because they demand to be read. So read it.