Talk To My Back is a collection of short comics exploring the bitter, solitary struggles of a lonely person. This subject matter is not strange to encounter in the translated pages of a work which originally appeared in Garo, but the voice is quite different. The author, Yamada Murasaki,1 is, well, a woman - and perhaps as importantly, a woman who was a crucial contributor to Garo’s second decade of publication. The squalor, the radical opposition, the focus on the most downtrodden that dominates the literary and experimental work of Garo’s 1960s and '70s is not exactly absent from Talk To My Back (serialized 1981-84), but it isn’t so explicit. Children are hungry, but there is food in the kitchen; apartments have fridges, there are gas stoves, school days, comfort. These are stories about the beleaguered housewife of a middle class white-collar worker - the struggle she portrays is different.
This is not to say that Yamada is not an artist of labor, although one gets the sense reading these linked stories that the student protests have very much ended. Indeed, her comics are all about a worker uniquely alienated from her labor: a mother. The stories begin as brief vignettes of a young housewife, mother to two girls, performing what some call women’s work: cleaning up after her children; preparing a late dinner for her husband; playing with her children; running errands; navigating the demands of neighbors; and desperately attempting to get her spouse to participate in the upkeep of the household (mostly in vain, of course). Gradually, she attempts small rebellions as her husband drifts further from her, taking on a part-time job, until the discovery of an artistic outlet–the creation of dolls–allows her to settle back into her imperfect domestic life, somewhere near contentment. These stories could be called lighthearted, but they are not trifles. The humor is quiet, the melancholy overwhelming. Domestic abuse is alluded to, but not depicted - perhaps because for Yamada, who had fled an abusive husband to resume the manga career he had interrupted, this would have been too painful to portray at the time.
Even as children, neighbors, husbands, teachers and co-workers crowd the frame, Talk To My Back is very much a solitary manga. Yamada's minimalist compositions are reminiscent of the pleasantly loose line and abstract screentone shading techniques of her more popular, smuttier josei contemporaries like Okazaki Kyōko, but with a greater emphasis on negative space and small gestures. Rooms are rarely cramped or cluttered, but mannered, empty, clean and quiet - barren, perhaps. Yamada's housewife stands in an environment almost out of focus, the faded background of a widescreen film, a space outside our field of vision. She lives there, she works there, at the kitchen sink. We dwell in her thoughts, her itineraries, her mounting frustrations, the rage she feels that only comes out when the moments that planted her anger have passed, well out of sight from the family she must tend to. Her husband only sees her when she disappoints him, her children only truly know her when she snaps at their misbehavior. But there’s grace in her solitude - the sigh of relief when she’s truly alone, the satisfaction of daily work, the little breaks, the little digressions, the joys of watching children play and grow and learn, the pauses where a bit of renewed self-awareness and embodiment in her life and labor can blossom.
While reading Talk To My Back, I couldn’t help but compare the melancholic maturity of Yamada's protagonist while the thrilling fatalism of Tsurita Kuniko,2 the sexiness of the sorrowful maidens of Hayashi Seiichi’s masterpieces, the dignified horror that women invoke in stories by Tatsumi Yoshihiro, Tsuge Yoshiharu, Abe Shin'ichi. Talk To My Back depicts the pain of a life that Tsurita both could not live and actively resisted in her art; a life that the men of Garo could never really know beyond compassion, longing (in Hayashi’s case, at least), and, yes: fear. At times I miss the rebel women, the scary women, the battered whores, the beautiful or repugnant loners who bear their furious rage aloud that so define femininity in the first generation of Garo. I love those women and I scorn the quiet fascism of nuclear families; in Yamada’s woman I see the mothers who traumatize children and the wives traumatized by husbands. They are the same woman - and, to her credit, Yamada understands this. She does not set out to depict a great woman, or a good woman, or even a terribly interesting woman. Rather, she confronts the reader with a woman’s life, a common woman’s inner world. Each chapter is a meditation on the sheer will it takes her housewife to survive under normalized abuse and oppressive demands, and the brief moments of beauty and humor that make survival possible.
Yamada’s stories do not glamorize the heteronormative path of womanhood. She depicts her housewife with patience and honesty. Not moral. Not wicked. Tired. These are stories about a woman trapped in a life that does not afford her respect but provides her weighty responsibilities: trying not to hurt her children; trying not to be hurt by her husband; trying to remain herself and not the cypher, the bad mom, the bitch wife. She does not always succeed. She is trying. Artistic expression might be her escape, as it is perhaps for her author. We don’t know. It’s a small business. Self-employment. More work to do. But she’s trying to find a way. Yamada depicts the narrow hopes of a woman constrained by the drab awfulness of her existence. In some sense, her protagonist is not unlike Tsurita’s Princess Rokunomiya - she wants to be understood, but her community places her into a repressive role that frustrates her inner world. She is not heroic, but her hopes and her small victories are beautiful. Yamada’s housewife reminds us that a better future is possible, that even under the crushing weight of patriarchy, capital, everything that makes people casually inhuman to one another, a woman’s small hope just to be herself resounds and will always be beautiful - beautiful enough to love.
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- In keeping with the format used in the book, all Japanese names in this review are presented in the Japanese naming order, e.g. Yamada Murasaki, Tsuge Yoshiharu, and so on.
- I wrote at length on Tsurita in an earlier piece for the Journal that in all honesty sounds like nails on a chalkboard for me at points, but reflects the intensity of my reaction to her remarkable art.