Sunday, 11 December 2016

Letting Die: An Analysis of Yoshihiro Tatsumi's Black Smoke (1969 manga)

[Content Warning: contains discussion of attempted rape; contains illustrated breasts.]

As with most short-stories writers, reading the stories in Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s The Push Man and Other Stories one after another reveals the cloth they all were cut from. If none reflect his life (as he stresses in the afterword-cum-interview), they reflect his concerns circa the late sixties. These early stories focus mainly on disempowered working-class men and, often, the shrewish women in their lives. A few stories diverge from this thematic base (“Projectionist,” “Make-Up,” and “Bedridden” do so in diverse ways). Taken in aggregate, however, Push Man builds a world of dirty neighbourhoods, speechless men, and selfish women, where aspirations, if not crushed, never exist to begin with.

The brevity of these stories (only two exceed eight pages), owes to the stinginess of the magazine Tatsumi wrote for, but such brevity makes his stories fertile and non-laborious to analyse. ‘Fertile’ because Tatsumi’s page-limit forced him to respect Hemingway’s iceberg theory. ‘Easy’ because, unlike with a novel, or a thirty page short-story, a reader can keep all eight pages in mind at once.

In this essay, I shall analyse the story “Black Smoke”. First, a summary:

Kin works as a garbage collector and incinerator. As he eats dinner after work, his wife barges in, clearly and spitefully drunk. She stumbles into their bedroom, leaving Kin silently staring over his dinner. In the bedroom, Kin stands over her sleeping body, looming. She awakes, and laughs him away. The next day, after collecting trash from a women’s clinic, he spots his wife leaving that same clinic, crying. When he opens the clinic’s trash bag at the incinerator plant, he finds a near fully-grown foetus. Staring into the incinerator’s flames, he flashes back to a car accident, where he lost the use of his genitals. In the present, he throws the foetus into the flames. At home with his wife, he decides to go for a walk. For a moment, he goes back inside. His wife has dozed off, and forgot to turn off the iron. Kin does not turn the iron off, and instead walks to a hill overlooking the city. He watches smoke rise from their home. He says his only lines in the piece: ‘It’s a filthy city. Everything here is trash. Eventually someone’s gotta burn it.’

Kin is a spineless man, though the first page leaves this ambiguous. In the first panel, we see Kin heaving a metal bin, mid-lift, conveying physical strength. His stern face suggests stoic masculinity. Sans the rest of the story, the reader could see Kin as, if not a romantic figure, then at least an admirable one: the stolid worker. As the plot progresses, and Kin’s life unravels, the trash surrounding him in this panel seems more important than his face. Whatever dignity he seems to have erodes.

For the first two pages, his silence fits a man getting on with his job. Even when his supervisor instructs him, he does not reply; he need not reply. On the third page, however, we see him with his wife. She taunts him, ‘Aren’t you gonna… burp… yell at me?’ His silence seems less stoical, than speechless. He says nothing not because he chooses not to respond, but because he cannot respond. His sole words in the piece (‘It’s a filthy city. Everything here is trash. … Eventually someone’s gotta burn it’) is not the pithy climax Tatsumi could have written it as. Kin’s final words are bargain-bin misanthropy, poorly reasoned and poorly expressed. After a whole story of silence his words do not bang, but whimper. The image of him in the panel, cross-eyed, semi-hunched, a cigarette dangling from his lips, further undermines whatever weight these words might have had. 

His job shows his social lowness; he is a trash collector-cum-incinerator. While it is certainly no sin to take such a job, taking it hardly boosts one’s self-image. Collecting refuse from the women’s clinic, the doctor tells Kin, ‘Good work.’ Tatsumi could have left the doctor silent, but the words he gives the doctor sting more than silence. A doctor, the height of middle-class professions, tells the lowest of working class professions, ‘Good work.’ A teacher gives a child this praise, so unbearably patronising is it. 

In this panel, Kin stands in a frame-within-a-frame, the doorway, so is symbolically constrained. His posture holding the trash bags makes it look as though he bows to the doctor, emphasising his lower status. Within this single panel, the doctor stands before a black background, while Kin stands before a white one, a metaphor for their disparate worlds.

Kin is emasculated; his flashback to his accident confirms the literal truth of this, while his other actions confirm the metaphorical truth. We see this most clearly in his relationship with his wife, and most especially in this page: 

After his wife barges home drunk, and plunges asleep in their bedroom, Kin looms over her sleeping body. Initially, shade surrounds and covers him, showing, along with his scowl, his ill-intentions. Before he enters, bed sheets cover his wife's breasts. When we see him in the door, however, a bare breast occupies the centre-foreground, unmissable. The visual language foreshadows a rape, by emphasising Kin's hostility and his wife's sexuality. But the rape never occurs; she awakes and laughs him off. His posture standing over her before she woke was strong: a predator hunched, but with arms ever so slightly bent, in anticipation of violence. Then she awakes, and his shoulders are not so much hunched, as deflated. His arms hang limp by his side. In this panel, Tatsumi draws Kin’s wife larger than she should be, as though, were she to stand, she’d tower over Kin. Tatsumi shows her psychological victory over Kin through a physical one. After his thwarted rape attempt, Kin seems miniscule compared to his would-be victim.

The steadily reducing shading also shows Kin’s defeat. First, shading fills the room; Kin’s ill-will looms everywhere. As the scene progresses, white space pushes back the shading. As he stands over her body before she awakes, the cross-hatched darkness is already a lighter series of parallel lines. Even so early, we see cracks in his resolve; his ill-will retreats from the world, for he has not the will to impose it on the world. In the final panel, the space around Kin is white, and only his forehead is shaded. His thwarted ill-will can only stew in his head.

Considering the rest of the story, Kin seems even more powerless. Knowing of his genital injury, we see a man not merely cowed from rape by his wife, but a man who could not have raped her to begin with. He set out to impose his will, but lacked even the most basic tool to do so.     

Kin’s lack of agency undermines his few ‘victories’. A short sequence on page five show his schadenfreude over his wife. After she leaves the women’s clinic (for an abortion, though Kin does not know that yet), she cries against a lamppost. We see this panel:

His stern face looms over her sobbing body. He is large and powerful, while she is shattered. Some pleasure must flicker through him at the sight of his tormenting wife done low by something, anything. But already in the next panel, his victory frays: 

Almost over Kin’s shoulder, we see his wife, drawn in such delicate penstrokes she almost evaporates from the page. This fragility of her image reflects how Kin sees her; his schadenfreude crumbles into pity, and his powerful, stern face has melted to weak, hunched shoulders.

The remnants of her foetus obliterates the only remnants of his victory. Tearing open the trash bag he collected from the women’s clinic, he finds his wife’s reason for sorrow. He then recalls the accident which made his genitals useless. This foetus proves his wife not only slept with another man, but produced a child with that man, something she could never do with Kin. This is not merely evidence of spousal betrayal; it emphasises Kin’s emasculation, as he is literally not man enough for his wife.

Even his climatic victory, where he watches his wife burn in their house, is not truly his victory. He did not turn the iron on while she slept. She fell asleep with the iron on, and Kin did nothing. His victory owes to his inaction. And he is at least a little conscious of this: ‘Eventually someone’s gotta burn it.’ He says ‘someone’, not ‘I’. Even had he initiated this fire, what would he gain? His wife is gone, but so is his house. He can only watch as everything he owns and hates burn. 

[Images scanned from Drawn and Quarterly's 2005 collection of Tatsumi's works, The Push Man and Other Stories, translated by Yuji Oniki.] 

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