Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Abandon-the-Old-in-TokoyoI picked this one up as part of my search for graphic short stories. I read How to Be Happy by Eleanor Davis a few months ago, and ever since, I’ve been slightly obsessed with graphic short story collections. There are many individual short stories that I love, but I rarely fall in love with a whole book of them. For some reason, I’ve found I really enjoy stories in the graphic form. The visual dimension adds a depth–an additional layer–that is sometimes lacking in short stories told in prose.

Abandon The Old In Tokyo is a collection of stories about urban life in 1960s post-war Japan. Tatsumi is famous for his work, and is widely considered to have started the style of Japanese manga known as gekiga, “dramatic pictures”. Gekiga is typically more serious than traditional manga, and utilizes a more realistic drawing style. Aimed at an older audience, its themes are generally darker and more experimental.

That darkness is on display in Abandon The Old In Tokyo. This is a bleak book. The stories are raw and gritty–sometimes outright disturbing, sometimes just weird, occasionally tender. Tatsumi shines a light into the darkest corners of urban life. His subjects are ordinary people with ordinary lives, but in both the artwork and the writing, he perfectly captures the loneliness, hopelessness, and alienation they experience. Tatsumi’s characters are factory workers and window washers, unemployed and destitute, bitter and indecisive.

In one story, a man looses his job. In another, a man is torn between caring for his elderly mother and living independently with his finance. Throughout, people seek solace wherever they can find it–in sex, food, animals, fantasies–although it rarely sticks.  These stories were not comfortable to read, and yet it was impossible not to relate and empathize with the characters, all of whom struggled to navigate disappointment and disillusionment in everyday life.

Tatsumi does something fascinating with his artwork: in several of the stories, the main character is drawn identically, although it is obvious that the stories are not about the same person. In each one, this man has a different family, job, etc. But he looks exactly the same–his body, his hair, his face. The effect is startling. It isn’t confusing–it becomes clear after only a page or two into each story that the characters are different–but it is a powerful visual thread that ties the book together and gives it heft. It illustrates how we are all connected and go through the same experiences, even though it often feels like we are alone and in our thoughts and desires.

It was a really interesting visual technique that got me thinking about the power of visual storytelling, and what can be said using comics that can’t be said in prose. It also got me thinking about all the different ways a book can be valuable. I didn’t love this book. Although it was absolutely worth the read, didn’t hit me deep in my gut. But I have never seen anything quite like what Tatsumi does here, and I have been thinking about it all week. A year from now, I might not remember much about this book, but I will always remember the way Tatsumi used that one identical drawing to represent many different characters, and how it got me thinking about the mechanics of how we tell stories.


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