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.