Review: Dokudami Tenement Volume 1

When exploring the struggles of young adulthood, it’s often tinged with romanticism. The idea of slumming it out, living alongside financial and social constraints seems an enriching experience to a modern audience. Maybe its links with escapism assist in this positive portrayal, but you’d be hard pressed to find a work of manga in which those on the outskirts are nothing more than unlucky people with hearts of gold. Enter Takashi Fukutani, whose seminal work Dokudami Tenement, published under Black Hook Press, attempts to challenge our perception of involuntary poverty, and the individuals it engulfs. 

The characters that inhabit Fukutani’s work would normally be the last you’d expect to see immortalised. Our protagonist, Yoshio Hori, acts as the representative for a collection of troubled vagrants living in 1980s Tokyo. Hard pressed for work, women and food, he scuttles along the Japanese underbelly, associating with perverts, drug addicts and borderline criminals who may afford him his next meal. Our protagonist emanates a shamelessness that can only be described as comical. He conjures the most primitive, instinctual thoughts on survival, and lives in a constant state of drunkenness, perversion and stagnation. The reader is given no room for empathy, as Yoshio continually isolates the reader with his morally obscured sensibilities. Yet, it’s through the lens of the hopeless that we are receptive to Fukutani’s vision. That is, to portray a lifestyle of genuine poverty. Heartbreak, financial difficulties and a country’s systemic issues cut deeper than the cartoony illustrations that depict them, as long as you’re receptive to it.

When reading this manga, you will find yourself frequently uncomfortable; whether it’s due to the lifestyles of these characters, the way they treat each-other or the way they treat themselves. The comedic pillar, Yoshio, is constructed as easygoing and highly resilient, but his underlying desperation seeps into his stories. In the prologue, he appears to be the ideal character, one struggling but with good spirits, only to peep through his neighbours keyhole and pleasure himself while she sleeps in the next chapter. He represents a person we would dissociate from in real life, and to acknowledge his existence is a deeply confronting experience. This is the core of misclassifying Fukutani’s themes. It’s easy to get caught up in the immorality of his characters, whose actions are far from justifiable, and easy to write off. But there are far more perverse issues with Yoshio’s lifestyle, just as unsettling and frightening as his thoughts; poverty.

Even with such a queer character, when Yoshio finds himself in difficult situations, in spite of questionable decisions that may have gotten him there, we still feel for him. It is in these moments that the manga dissociates from its comedic outlines. These little jabs of reality humanise a character who operates in the most unorthodox ways. His swindling of others doesn’t negate the fact that he’s too poor to eat. So poor, in fact, that in chapter ‘Midnight Mover’, he must decide whether to eat one day, allowing him to sleep, or have money for transport for his job the next day. He has sold all of his possessions, but still struggles to find consistent income. The agency of his misfortune is debatable, but the influence of higher powers within society cannot be dismissed.

The art often slumbers throughout the volume. It remains an afterthought, with the focus of each vignette being the story. It’s in the most extreme scenes, as if meeting the reader’s surprise also, where it creates the most emphatic expressions on its characters. Fukutani is well aware of the vitriol he is creating, and he is far from condoning it. It intends to remind us on the humorous elements of this manga, that these bizarre characters should not be taken too seriously. In the current social and economic climate, it may be difficult to extract humour from the more uninspired scenes, but the moments of pure absurdism will more often than not trigger a few snickers. Some issues of gender-portrayal, of course, cannot be justified through sympathetic claims, but they remain minimal and are often linked to the skewed views of characters, as opposed to faithful depictions. 

The importance of this manga to Fukutani is explored in depth at the end of this volume. Editor Mitsuhiro Asakawa has done an excellent job compiling a harrowing biography on Yoshio’s human counterpart, whose own shortcomings led to similar life outcomes. It was his own experiences with poverty that led to such an unsettling account of it, one which should rouse frustration in the breast of the most empathetic of souls. The volume begins with a photograph of Fukutani gazing over the rooftops of Asagaya, the future setting of this manga, which instills a sense of legitimacy to Yoshio’s stories. There was something to be said of his experiences, and it seems the author has verbalised his thoughts through this series.

Without romance, struggling is dirty, monotonous and draining. Fukutani understands this, and ignores this facet of storytelling to truly explore his subjects: the disenfranchised and impoverished youth of Japan during the mid to late 1900s. There are no romantic monologues on art, lust, hunger, only a shameless struggle for survival. 

This product was provided to the reviewer in the form of a review copy. Irrespective of this fact, the article remains completely unbiased, and contains the reviewer’s thoughts only.

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