Others looked back to the past and towards the more alternative side of manga to find the unique voices of women who would otherwise go unnoticed in the world of American manga.
TALK TO MY BACK (Shin Kirari), by Yamada Murasaki. First published in 1981 and first published in North America in 2022.
A nameless housewife ruminates on her life and identity as she struggles to raise her kids, manage the household, deal with her feckless and frequently absent husband, get a part-time job, and somewhere in between all of that find some time and space for herself.
Talk to My Back is kind of a tricky work to review. There's no real story or character arc to speak of. Most of it is spent inside a single, modest family apartment. Hell, the main character isn't even given a name. Yet this has to be one of the most thoughtful manga I've read all year.
A lot of that has to do with its themes. Murasaki is dealing with ideas that a lot of married women (with and without children) grapple with at some point or another. Our nameless heroine struggles with defining her identity beyond "wife" and "mother," the personal and financial satisfaction and independence that can come from a job outside the home, the complicated stew of feelings a mother can feel towards her growing children, and grappling with the loneliness and resentment she feels towards a spouse who is seldom available, demands just as much of her attention as her children when he is around, and who becomes increasingly insecure about his wife's increasing independence and willingness to assert herself. True to life, there are no quick fixes nor any neat and tidy endings for any of these issues. She simply has to find what few moments of happiness and satisfaction she can grasp and enjoy them while she may.
More than anything, though, my appreciation for this book is similar to that I had for the Kanako Inuki book I reviewed earlier this month. Gekiga manga is still rather underrepresented in English-language manga and it's something I rarely talk about on here. Some of has to do with its comparative rarity, its age, and its daunting critical reputation, but it's also the fact that gekiga manga was so often and overwhelming male in its perspective. Murasaki was apparently one of the first women to find success in gekiga, and her career took off around the same point that josei manga first came into being. Talk To My Back is kind of the perfect intersection of the two in how it combines gekiga's more literary structures and frank confrontation of societal norms with josei's willingness to explore the hearts and minds of adult women.
If there's one word to describe Murasaki's art, it would be "minimalist." She apparently received some classical art training in her youth, and you can see some of that come through in her delicate linework and the sweep of the housewife's hair. It lends a certain grace to these otherwise plain characters, with their beady eyes and plain looks. Interestingly, over time the artwork in this collection becomes increasingly abstract. The linework is rougher, the inking is hastier, and the characters are increasingly simplified. Still, she is able to capture some striking and powerful moments with her pen, be it the empty space in a hall where a lonely wife wants her husband to be or the same wife watching clouds in a puddle alongside her children.
There's an absolutely brilliant essay afterwards by the translator, Ryan Holmberg. In just under 30 pages, he not only delivers an excellent biography of Murasaki and her career but also discusses the role of women in the gekiga movement and how the genre evolved as it entered the 1980s. It's a well-researched piece that packs a lot of punch for its relatively short length and it's essential reading if you want to understand the full context of this manga or to learn more about the artist behind it.
This book is published by Drawn & Quarterly. It is currently in print.
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