Wednesday, August 06, 2014
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