If Ingmar Bergman were a Japanese Manga creator, he would no doubt have been Yoshihiro Tatsumi. In "Good-Bye," a new collection of Tatsumi's short works from 1971 and 1972, the underbelly of the Japanese psyche is examined in from an intimate and often grim vantage point with masterful results.
Japanese Manga has been the hottest comics trend in the United States, with shelves of the books finding their way into mainstream bookstores and the hands of American teenagers everywhere. Tatsumi, though, is a pioneer of the form and if the current onslaught is mystifying to adults on a number of levels -- from the youthful subject matter to enormity of the titles available -- Tatsumi provides a reference point for the lost, both in chronology and maturity.
In Tatsumi's world, Japan is land of not merely of repression, but of the illusion of repression. Nastiness still abounds and people still act out their coarsest desires, but society turns a blind eye to it, creating the mass delusion that there is nothing wrong. The way Tatsumi tells it, this results in a world of colliding, mournful loners who want and take and hurt.
In "Hell," Tatsumi uses the bombing of Hiroshima as the ultimate indicator of the fraud of Japanese society, with the desire for upright decency being revealed as a compulsion enabled by the country's nostalgia for its own need for honor.
Meanwhile, men are desperate and lonely, filled with self loathing due to the expectations of society. In "Just a Man" and "Rash," older men grope for their fantasies and end up with further dark holes in their souls. In "Woman in the Mirror" and "Night Falls Again" the inability of Japanese men to express themselves in a sexual manner is turned inside out on them by the world at large.
Tatsumi's bitter slices of life unwind with a silent grace -- his artwork renders the tragedies with a compassion that never hides the starkness of the emotions portrayed. Tatsumi is spare with dialogue, but it packs a punch when his characters speak, bring the reader to intimate corners as we intrude on the most private -- and sometimes horrible -- moments in their lives.
The Dayan Collection by Akiko Ikeda (Dark Horse)
Hidden away in children's popular culture in Japan is a big-eyed cat named Dayan who inhabits a magical world not far down the street from the works of Beatrix Potter, thanks to its darkness and absurdity. The books are being translated into English for the first time, giving American kids the chance to encounter the cat's low key adventures.
Akiko Ikeda's tales walk a path that welcomes mysticism and a subtle folkloric quality, as well as an existentialism that replaces any sort of humdrum exposition. The first book, "Dayan's Birth-day," opens with the simple idea that Dayan does not know when his birthday is, but wants to so he can throw himself a party. Like something out of an old folk tale, Dayan makes a deal with witches to uncover the mysterious date, but thoughtlessness creates a conflict with the witches that can only be solved through fast-thinking trickery.
There is something positively pagan about the comings and goings of the animal characters -- "Thursday Rainy Party" involves a celebration of showers and the creation of a calendar; "White Eurocka" brings animals together for a Winter Solstice style celebration that involves a mystical birth; and "Chibikuro Party" unveils a party of freed shadows who plan never to return to their masters, under the leadership of the nefarious shadow of "The Satan of Death Forest."
Despite the dark, supernatural tones, these are not scary stories in the slightest -- and they all unfold around cute forest animals. The darkness functions as a spice that mixes well with the adorable simplicity of the other half of the tales -- there will be, perhaps, a cultural difference in what is considered the norm for children's books. For a little kid who might be ready for something with unexpected texture -- or a parent who might want to expose the child to other cultures in a subtle, less dictatorial manner, that involves exciting strangeness traveling through the ether -- the Dayan books are just the thing.
Weird Massachusetts by Jeff Belanger (Sterling Publishing)
As the summer months come into full gear and amusements are best found closer to home thanks to the price of gas, citizens of the Berkshires might want to take some time to rediscovering their home state. There's a new, rollicking guide to this pursuit in "Weird Massachusetts," the latest in a series of books edited by Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman that corners the market on travel books focusing on the bizarre, servicing their readers as a great guide to getting out of the house as well as just stellar bathroom books.
Calling them "travel guides" really belittles the scope series, since they are more than that -- part art book, part memoir, part history book and part collection of legends, "Weird Massachusetts" manages to capture this state as I've always known it. I remember during the 2004 election, outsiders painting Massachusetts as this snooty place to be -- they had to tear down John Kerry somehow -- and hearing this repeated by Mitt Romney. I thought nothing could be further from the truth -- Massachusetts is the last stop for individualistic weirdness within civilization. It's all wilderness north of us, but it's hardly more bizarre than anything within our borders.
For local flavor the book does great justice to the Hoosac Tunnel, not only offering history and lore, but also a great first hand account of a recent exploration in the tunnel, complete with snapshots. The book also includes local oddities like Balance Rock, Bish Bash Falls, the Holy Hill of Zion, Coca-Cola Ledge (Who knew there was a monster related to that? No one I've asked!), the Hairpin Turn and Houghton Mansion.
On a personal note for me the book is a trip down memory lane, with not only tons of places my family has visited, but a few faces from the past as well. Richard Porter, the Thermometer Man, hosts his collection in a garage in Onset -- a friendlier guy you couldn't hope to meet.
Meanwhile, Emily the Cow is near and dear to my heart -- I met her doing a freelance assignment for the newspaper in Sherborn very earlier in my newspaper writing career. Emily escaped a slaughterhouse in 1995 by jumping the gate and surviving for 40 days before finding a home at the Peace Abbey, a religious community.
The mysterious Smoot Bridge -- also featured in the book -- was one I walked over probably thousands of times going from my apartment in Boston to various jobs in Cambridge. For those who have never seen it, the modest bridge over the Charles River is painted with numbers accompanying the word "Smoots." I won't reveal the secret, but I will say that the bridge is really the Harvard Bridge, but the word "smoots" keeps it far more identifiable.
The book covers all the obvious, well-trod areas like Salem, but it also has a good time documenting some lesser known weirdness. One of my favorite places anywhere ever is covered -- Dogtown, a forest area of inland Gloucester. The area has a great history of seedy neighborhoods and witches and weird types, as well as a bizarre turn that saw eccentric Roger Babson (of Babson College) become obsessed with researching the history -- and then having stonemasons carve bizarre, inspirational messages on boulders. You can go for a hike in Dogtown and be greeted by orders carved in stone, like "Help Mother" and "Get a Job."
While you're on Cape Ann, you can also check out the two great houses, as the book points out -- inventor John Hammond's crazy castle and the Paper House, a monument to wacky ingenuity built entirely of, yes indeed, paper.
There are plenty of other great attractions documented in between Berkshire County and Cape Anne -- like the Plastics Museum -- or weird phenomenon -- Gravity Hill in Greenfield (I've tried it, it works!). There are also scores of myths, legends, and hauntings and a particularly fetching section that surveys abandoned asylums in the Commonwealth.
That's the beauty of Massa-chusetts -- weirdness is just out your doorstep if you are paying attention. No matter where I've lived or just visited in this state, there's always been something odd to see.
"Weird Massachusetts" doesn't round it all up -- I can name plenty that didn't make the cut here -- but that's a good thing. It's a great book to get you going, steer you in the right directions, excite you to the possibilities -- but it doesn't spoil it by revealing all, and that's the best sort of guide you can have.