The alternative manga movement, pioneered by the likes of Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Yoshiharu Tsuge, has produced some of my favourite manga of all time. Titles like A Drifting life and Screw style freely explore profound topics through autobiographical structures and surrealist imagery, deviating from the cartoony aesthetic comics were (and are still) driven by. While not uncommon throughout Gekiga titles, Shinichi Abe is credited as one of the first artists to fully explore the darker moments of living through quasi-autobiographical means.
Black Hook Press intends to further the increasing catalogue of Gekiga manga published in English with their newest release, Abe’s That Miyoko Asagaya Feeling. Through these stories, an unsettling feeling occupies the reader. The acts and utterances of these characters have the capacity to isolate through deplorable acts of instability. However, there is something familiar about it. We are drawn to these characters, for their behaviours are bathed in struggles we all have some experience with. Abe doesn’t shy away from the bohemian lifestyle of youth in the 1970s. He has every intention of depicting the melancholic exhaustion that encases those living on the fringes of society, and documents his tales without restraint.
The volume begins with the title story, in which a young girl spends the day loafing around her boyfriend’s apartment. Through her meditation on the state of their future, the reader is introduced to key topics in Abe’s stories; disenfranchised youth, poverty, and the struggles of artistic pursuit. These sentiments are furthered in the next story Light Shoulders, which documents the monotonous exchanges of a young couple. There is an inherent instability that plagues most relationships in this piece. Love is used to describe feelings, but actions rarely line up with the sentiment. Characters nonchalantly discuss break-ups in a blunt and bizarre fashion, with emotive responses few and far between. It is primarily through sex where exchanges feel intimate, and even then a sense of detachment can be physically observed between the characters.
While apparent from the first panel, the struggles of our characters become more prevalent with the introduction of male leads. The male narrators in this piece lack an empathetic awareness for others, finding themselves too consumed with their art to hold stable relationships. The Life of Vagrancy remains un-incriminating, with two impoverished youths wandering around their city, discussing similar utterances regarding financial hardships, university life, as well as their artistry.
It’s in Asagaya Love suicide, in which a female love interest is entered into the mix, that the skewed male thinking is exacerbated, leading to the most contentious piece in this collection. Our protagonists shift from being troubled, somewhat angsty individuals to neurotic, self-obsessed characters who see those around them as either untrustworthy, or lesser beings. While the relationship between the male friends remains grounded in artistic camaraderie, their objectification of women justifies their ability to pass them around, even when they are unwilling. They may see this commodification of women as an act of rebellion against society, or maybe an underlying illness skews their morality, but they ultimately begin looking like unproductive, unsympathetic characters, a feeling that seeps into the bones of Abe’s male archetype.
The stories are portrayed so coherently that you almost forget that these characters, and Abe himself, suffered from multiple issues that complicate their lives immeasurably. We live in a time where artistic creations depicting struggle are ascribed unconditional authenticity, a valuable commodity that conveys that this piece has a genuine connection with human understanding. But Abe uses it to portray a destructive group of people who do not rouse sympathy in the slightest. It teeters on a societal double standard; being able to identify illnesses is seen as mature, but portraying the complications that may arise from them is too confronting.
Abe’s freeform art style not only accentuates the surrealist undertones of these stories, but in a way, mirrors the instability of the characters it depicts. There is a startling accuracy in the expressions of each character (represented by the existential disdain of the female narrator in Private Life, who rests on the cover jacket for this volume), but maintaining a sketchy aesthetic emphasises the polarity of what is being depicted, which is often quite confronting anyway.
In spite of the harmful male attitudes, Abe attempts to provide the perspective of female characters to counteract the emotional indifference. The story Love still centres around a relationship between young adults, but the second half spends a large portion of time documenting the female’s life outside of her partner. The typhoon, which ravages their town, symbolises the turbulence of adulthood and relationships in this story, as opposed to the vitriol that emerges from questionable male behaviours. While Abe never condones the attitudes of his male characters, a divide is present in the thoughts of each gender. A male character will often discuss himself and his art, with his significant other an afterthought, while the female narrators are almost based on their relationships with men, with monologues often focusing their purpose around their significant others.
Tomato provides a rare breather from these stories, with a wholesome depiction of relationships, devoid of any psycho-sexual imagery. The story explores a late-20s couple moving out of the city to the Kyushu countryside. While not especially stable economically, their emotional maturity contrasts the moral and social volatility of the years prior. The final story, Private Life, once again brings us into the melancholic struggles of a turbulent young relationship. Narrated entirely from the female perspective, we are brought into a monologue about her new life in Tokyo, with an abusive boyfriend rendered docile after a nervous breakdown.
It’s easy to find yourself conflicted when reading this volume. For all it’s accuracy, it’s a highly confronting piece that rarely incites contentedness. There are instances where fluffy dialogue promising profound thoughts are identified as substance-less, and the angsty overtones are often conveyed crudely. But if you truly want to read about struggle, it is ever-present within this collection. This is as true a depiction of instability as you can find, and while there are acts within this volume that should be denounced, the sentiments that brought them to existence are present within every individual.