Hhow to describe talk to my back, a classic collection of graphic stories from feminist alternative manga star, Yamada Murasaki? These stories of failure and domestic boredom were written in the 80s, but Japan being what it is – only last month it was reported that when abortion pills will finally be made available to women in the country, partner consent will always be required – their atmosphere often feels much closer to that of the 50s or early 60s. fictionalise Betty Friedan’s film. The feminine mystic. If his stories are thoughtful to the point of daydreaming, they are also full of frustration, of a discontent that simmers like a hot pan. I’m so glad Drawn & Quarterly saw fit to put them in an English edition for the first time.
Translated by comics historian Ryan Holmberg (who also wrote an extremely informative introduction), these stories include an extended portrait of a housewife, Chiharu Yamakawa. She has two daughters (who we watch grow up) and a husband (mostly absent) who treats her like a servant. Often alone, there are days when she hardly recognizes herself; she seems little more than an outline of a person, a feeling that Murasaki captures on the page via a delicate halo all over her body and, at times, drawing her featureless on her face.
What should she do? Marriage has become a dream, from which she hopes to wake up soon – and 250 pages into the book, she does indeed get a part-time job. However, the reader cannot help but notice that for Chiharu “emancipation” – this is the word Murasaki ostensibly chooses – will ultimately reside in the dolls she makes, exquisite mannequins that a local shop will sell for thousands of yen. Only by reproducing her own captivity, it seems, can she ever hope to find freedom.
Murasaki (1948-2009), who first published these stories in the influential magazine Garo, based much of her work on her own life — she was a single mom — and it shows on every page. She was the first cartoonist to demonstrate that the freedoms of expression of alternative manga could be accessible to wives, mothers and sisters and, as Holmberg notes, the central relationship at the heart of Talk in my back isn’t Chiharu’s with her husband, or even with the girls she adores – it’s with herself. Through his sketchy black-and-white drawings, so fluid and eloquent, Murasaki captures his character’s every mood swing and internal contradiction, his guilt as well as his longing (more than once, other people tell Chiharu that she should be “thankful” for her life – as if she didn’t know it herself). But Murasaki sweetens that by also recalling the everyday pleasures and rituals of home: the jokes, the teasing, a delicious bowl of noodles (“slurp”). The result is a cross-cultural book about women’s self-esteem – where it comes from and why it sometimes disappears – that stands the test of time in the most remarkable way.