A collection of short stories in the gekiga tradition, people who are familiar with Yoshihiro Tatsumi may be as surprised as I was by the strangely positive stories in this volume. All are set in remote mountain villages untouched by modern conveniences, and focus on events in the lives of the mountain residents. Many also feature touches of folk tales and fantasy creatures to woven into the narrative.
The stories vary widely, from coming-of-age stories (Mulberry, about a squabbling young boy and girl who suddenly mature when the girl, who lives in a brothel, gets her first period) to love stories (in Funeral for Wild Geese, a man caught in a blizzard gives up his old life to marry a lonely local woman) to eerie supernatural comeuppance stories (in Kokeshi, the mentally unbalanced master of the village goes around ravaging women until he is avenged by the kappa who were born of the miscarriages of his illegitimate children). Even the darkest subject matter is somehow lightened by the mountain setting and the attitudes of the characters, who seem intent on making the best of things rather than dwelling on their misfortunes. The folk tale elements are also well wrought and lend a sense of the unreal to the events, be it a tree spirit seeking out its young female lover as its last act, a restless ghost taking form as an avenging cloud of fireflies, or a kappa out to protect the honor of a battered wife.
My favorite story in the volume was Pulp Novel About a Sack. It features a wandering monk who happens into a village of older women whose husbands have all left to find work elsewhere. When one of the women goes too far when assisting him with his bath, the town residents work out a deal and… “pass him around like a rosary bead” while keeping him captive in a burlap bag. It’s shocking because of its content, but it’s even more extraordinary due to the fact that a man is the one being victimized, something you rarely see in this type of story. It also keeps an entirely neutral perspective, casting the women in neither a desperate or evil light, so that the reader is forced to make their own conclusions. The neutral perspective and dark story also stand in sharp contrast to the picturesque rural setting and depiction of quiet village life. Neutralizing a brutal topic comes up again in Kokeshi, where the story of the village master abusing women is set against scenery where kappa slip in and out of the paths of angry villagers and kokeshi dolls are used as a plot device later. Interestingly, in this story, the rape is avenged, unlike in Pulp Novel.
Not all the stories deal with dark subject matter. Some are pleasant, and sometimes they end well, but never do they moralize or balance good against evil. They simply tell a story, and rather the story is good or bad, the people good or evil, is left entirely to your own judgement. The characters reflect surprisingly little on the events, and sometimes all the reader is left with is a slice of life narrative. All are extremely well-told, however. Much like the Tatsumi books, the pacing can be slow and the subject matter dark, but these are excellent examples of the comic short story done right, and should appeal widely to an adults outside the manga audience.