Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #218: Fallen Words by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

I like to think that I appreciate unpredictability in the writers and artists I follow, but that's probably just smugness talking: real unpredictability means that you can't be sure that creator's next book will be as pleasing to you as the last one was, and no one really is in favor of that. And so I might appreciate the craft when my favorite manga artist's latest book is entirely made up of shaggy-dog historical stories in a very Japanese idiom, but I'm not as engaged or entertained as I hoped.

Fallen Words is that book; Yoshihiro Tatsumi is the cartoonist. Three books of his devastatingly nihilistic short stories of the '60s and '70s -- The Push Man, Abandon the Old in Tokyo, and Good-Bye -- were his first introduction to English-speaking audiences, followed by a major long memoir of his early years in comics, A Drifting Life, and then an early thriller from those days, Black Blizzard. But his most recent book in Japanese is Fallen Words, which takes a Japanese oral storytelling tradition called rakugo and translates it into comics form.

Now, these aren't exactly shaggy-dog stories, and they're not exactly jokes, but they have certain similarities: they're longish tales, forty pages or so, that culminate in a single punch line that twists the assumptions of the whole story. So this form is definitely in the same general territory: designed to surprise and delight and amuse and provoke laughter. The subtitle calls these "moral comedies," which is a decent descriptor: the punch lines are all about expected or correct behavior.

Tatsumi tells eight stories in Fallen Words, all of them set in storybook long-ago Japan, full of men in kimonos and seductive oiran and the occasional supernatural event. I'm not sure how much of this reads as historical fiction or as fairy-tale to the original Japanese audience: are we meant to take these stories as things that mostly happened, or as moral fables? But all of these are clearly retellings -- Tatsumi tells us so. These are standard stories, which individual storytellers would embellish and tell in their own ways -- keeping the general framework, certainly, and the all-important last line, without a doubt.

For an audience that isn't familiar with the original stories, the particular joy in seeing Tatsumi's changes is muted at best. And what's left is a series of semi-fabulistic historical tales, filled with stock characters and situations, told with Tatsumi's expressive but unspectacular art. But the essential fact is this: the more you already know about this corner of Japanese culture, the more you will be able to take away from Fallen Words.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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