A Single Match

No critic ever wants to utter the phrase “I don’t get it,” either in print or out loud. I suspect, however, that more than a few comics pundits will be scratching their heads over Oji Suzuki’s A Single Match, the latest entry in Drawn & Quarterly’s ongoing line of gekiga books. It’s not that Suzuki indulges too far into abstraction or hard-to-follow formalism. Rather it’s that – even after accounting for issues of translation and cultural difference -- his work is enigmatic and elliptical enough to frustrate and confound even an attentive reader.

Perhaps the key is that Suzuki isn’t as interested in telling stories, per se, as much as he is in capturing certain moments -- of memory, of awareness -- and the emotions that roil underneath. To compound the issue, fantasy and the dream world frequently intersect with reality in his stories, and Suzuki makes no effort to distinguish the former from the latter. After all, if the characters can’t tell the difference, why should the reader?

The opening story, "Color of Rain", may provide the best example of this blurring of perception. In it, a boy falls ill after walking home in the rain, and his grandmother attempts to nurse him back to health. Lying down, he enters a fever dream where sounds and images take on strange new associations. He imagines he’s riding on streetcar with a (seemingly) nonexistent brother. After peering out the window, this imagined sibling vanishes. The boy is alone, and the streetcar has become dark and foreboding. Then he wakes up. Fin. The story captures rather expertly the sort of half-awake sleep state rather well, but ultimately seems to be more of an exercise in evoking a certain experience than in telling a conventional tale. Sometimes Suzuki ventures into even more inexplicably surreal territory, as in "Evening Primrose", which focuses on a young woman conversing with a man who manifests himself in the form of a disembodied, floating head, and hands. “Is this a dream?” she asks.

This constant warping between the world of imagination and that of perceived reality isn’t the only thing that makes Suzuki’s stories difficult to suss out. His narratives are frequently fragmented in their very telling, and the narrative voice in them often shifts, for no immediately apparent reason, from third to first person and back. Who, for example, is the narrator of "Highway Town"? How could he remember or know about the personal matters he discusses? Virtually every story in Match features an authoritative voice that is both omniscient and personal. Even when dialogue is offered via a word balloon or two, it can be hard to tell which character is speaking and to whom.

In his review for the Hooded Utilitarian, Ng Suat Tong describes Suzuki’s work as "labyrinthine," and there is indeed a maze-like structure to these stories. Suzuki frequently jumps back and forward in time without giving the reader any clues that such a temporal shift has taken place.

Obviously, Suzuki’s stories are meant to attain a semblance to poetry, but poetry in comics is a difficult goal to obtain -- the two forms have different rhythms. More to the point, many comics creators use poetic ambitions as an excuse to lapse into sentimentality, and Suzuki is not immune. Lines like "What is this trembling heart?/Aah, what exactly is the trembling of the human heart?" from "Tale of Remembrance" dance perilously close to a maudlin sensibility.

Suzuki works better when he’s attempting to confront more directly the trials and tribulations of childhood and early adolescence. "World Colored Pants", for example, deals rather subtly and successfully with a young boy’s sexual awakening via his uneasy friendship with a cross-eyed boy and the friend’s rather aggressive older sister. His examinations of the relationship between parent and child are noteworthy as well, as in "Crystal Thoughts", about a boy who gets an extravagant gift from his father that the family can ill afford.

Suzuki loves to draw his characters in silhouette. They are often seen in profile or from behind, walking long, thin rural roads, surrounded by a thick, inky blackness that threatens to swallow them up. Most of the stories are set in rural Japanese towns and villages, and characters often walk by vast, flat rice fields, dwarfed by nature or enveloped by the night sky.

His characters never talk directly about their feelings. There is no “I thought” or “I felt” or “I am.” Declarative sentences of any kind are rarely used, especially when someone is talking about themselves or their past.

More than anything, what drives these stories is a sense of longing, whether it’s longing for childhood, missed opportunities, former lovers, or simply the past. It’s not nostalgia so much as a melancholy, or regret, although what exactly is regretted is difficult at times to identify or articulate.

To that end, it would have been nice for D&Q to have provided some sort of background material on Suzuki that goes beyond the astoundingly brief, one-paragraph biographical synopsis found in the back of the book. An essay or introduction providing some context to Suzuki’s work and influence in his native country would have added a great deal to my appreciation. I understand the desire to present the work “as is,” without anything extraneous or leading to color a reader’s perceptions, but I think in this case more context was warranted.

Some readers will no doubt find A Single Match to be too forbidding, too elusive, or too odd to want to delve into it too deeply. I can easily imagine a first-time reader closing the book feeling more bewildered than entranced. Repeated readings can help subdue that bewilderment – each time I open Match I feel like I’m slowly growing more accustomed to and appreciative of Suzuki’s world – but the reward that comes with that effort is not clearly visible at first glance.


4 Responses to A Single Match

  1. madinkbeard says:

    D&Q's lack of supporting material in these reprints is rather annoying. They don't even include any information on when these stories were original drawn/published. The guy's had a long career, it seems, yet I don't know if these are early works, late works, do they cover his career. Are they originally from Garo? Or somewhere else?

    No literary publisher would print a translation of a novel without including some kind of introduction… or at least the publication date of the original novel.

  2. ryanholmberg says:

    Thanks for this straightforward and honest review. I have never really understood the appeal of Suzuki's work…actually, I am not sure I have ever understood his work period. Though that could be from lack of trying. But I will say that, even in Japanese, they are pretty obscure. He's had a tremendous impact on alternative Japanese comics down to the present, so I do think understanding his work is important for understanding manga in general. Your review made me want to go back and look at them again.

    I agree for the need in these books of some sort of contextual material. Some of this might be solved if Tsuge Yoshiharu's Garo and immediate post-Garo work ever gets translated into English. The genre conventions of Suzuki, who was heavily influenced by Tsuge, would begin to come out. It might be helpful to compare these stories with a few of Tatsumi's in Abandon the Old in Tokyo, some of which are also heavily heavily indebted to Tsuge. Note: Both Tsuge and Suzuki (along with Ikegami Ryoichi) worked for Mizuki Shigeru in the late 60s.

    I have not read this edition of Suzuki's work, and I am told that the contents are different from a book of the same title released in Japan many years ago. Of the stories you name, I can tell you the original publication data for the following: "A Single Match" (Garo, July 1972), "The Color of Rain" (Garo, Dec 1971), "Highway Town" (Garo, Feb 1972). As for the Katsumata Susumu book (Red Snow), only one of those was printed in Garo and only as a reprint. There is no reason for this sort of elementary information to be excluded, and I think D&Q has created some confusion by choosing to do so.

    A last note. D&Q's advertising of this book as "gekiga" is pretty "idiosyncratic," I think. In Japan, the term generally connotes macho action things like Golgo 13. In the late 60s and early 70s, sometimes it means nothing more than comics-for-young-adults — kind of the way "graphic novel" is used because "comics" is thought to suggest the wrong things. You do find people in the late 60s calling artists like Mizuki Shigeru gekiga, but I think in the case of Suzuki and Katsumata the term has been creatively applied. Something like "post-Tsuge comics" would be a more useful lens, or "literary manga" as someone like Suzuki was very conscious of being in a lineage of literary prose authors rather than those of comics, pulp fiction, or movie-centered mass entertainment.

  3. Pingback: A Single Match (Red Kimono) manga review • Animefangirl! | Animefangirl!

  4. Simon says:

    @ ryanholmberg

    I think the term gekiga has changed in meaning over the years. It first applied to the kind of gritty social-realism genre developed by Yoshihiro Tatsumi. The documentary film about that author supports this. As that realist style fell from favour during the 80s (?), and manga like Golo 13 became popular, the term was still used. It now is associated with the heavy eyebrow style manga (not kidding) used in Golgo 13. So, for Japanese gekiga has become synonymous with an art style rather than the subject.

    Back to Oji Suzuki, I’m glad to read this in translation. I think it repays repeated reading. A sense of what he is doing starts to emerge for me, the more i read. But I have a gut feeling that the D&Q edition is let down by the translation. I cannot help thinking that some deeper meaning has been lost in what feels like lumpen English.

    The edition, I’m not too happy with. For one thing D&Q have reversed the page order. Do we still need to do that? But the thing about their English editions of manga that really gets to me is the format. These comics were never designed for these slick hard-cover presentations. For me, it belies the whole tradition of manga and Garo, itself, to turn them into coffee-table art books. And the covers. Too often they lose the sensibility inherent in the graphic design of the Japanese originals. The French versions look better and more sensitively re-presented.

    Sorry, to end on a negative slant as it’s still good to see this work in print and kudos to D&Q for doing that. I hope to see more Garo work in English. But D&Q please rethink your presentation.

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