Human Scramble: Masao Yajima, Kenshi Hirokane

Years and years ago, when I asked my Japanese tutor for some well-written novels and manga that I could use as examples of good writing, she said she’d think about it. The next week, she brought me a copy of Snow Country and the first volume of Human Scramble. Snow Country was a pretty obvious choice. After all, author Yasunari Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Human Scramble was less obvious. And although I still don’t know exactly why she thought this manga would be a good example of Japanese writing, I get the feeling that it isn’t so much superior to other methods of storytelling as it is an embodiment of the basics of storytelling. (Which I realized/started thinking about when I read Book Two recently.)

Each volume of this manga is self-contained, a collection of short stories about people living in Japan in the 1980s and early 1990s. And if you like the darker side of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, stuff like Abandon the Old in Tokyo (as opposed to his more hilarious works like the untranslated Jigoku no Gundan in which a child is raised by rats to become the king of the rats and take vengeance on humanity (for real. and yes, it is as amazing as you are thinking. there is a burning moat.)), you should probably pick up a copy of Human Scramble. A laht of human drama in these pages. And none of it really ends well, even when it does on the surface.

A man meets his daughter for the first time when she comes to stay with him after a stint in juvie, a detective finishes his stake-out before rushing home to be with his dying mother as she takes her last breath, an abusive father is murdered by his son’s teacher; Human Scramble is filled with stories of the working class, of the forgotten and the overlooked. Obviously, some stories are more salacious than others, but the majority are simply tales of good people who have lost their way.

Given that the series started in 1981, it’s interesting, although not surprising, to see how World War Two still colours the perceptions of the protagonists. In “Kieta Kuni” (Lost Country), a fire in a train car leads the detectives on the case back to an incident in Manchuria. Several other stories reference the poverty and hard times the Japanese people faced in the immediate post-war era. As a Westerner born long after the war in a country not physically damaged by it, the after-effects of being bombed and invaded are completely foreign to me. And you read about these things in history books, but it’s really in reading fiction like this where you get a real understanding of just how far the events of the war penetrated the national psyche.

The art is pretty standard? I mean, it’s nothing spectacular either way. Not badly done, but not particularly memorable either. I sort of love how all the characters somehow end up with adorably upturned noses, and the fact that all the women look like regular women and are not caricatures of fat ladies or skinny ladies. There are ladies of a variety of sizes and relative shapes, but they look real and comfortable in their bodies. It’s a nice change from the hyper slenderness you see so much in manga these days. (And now I sound like an old person, shaking my fist at the wind. The kids these days!!) There are a few moments when the art wins out, like, but for the most part, the art serves the story, illustrating events and pulling the whole thing forward.

Really, the most interesting parts of the whole series are the stories where people are in jail. Because jail in Japan in the 1980s = ????? You get lovely scenes of people in yukata kneeling in front of floor-level desks with cups of tea at hand as they compose letters in beautiful calligraphy. It just doesn’t seem very jail-like. Maybe it’s just women’s prisons that were like this since all the jail stories so far have been women’s jails. But still. It makes me want to find out what jail is like in Japan now. Although not in a firsthand, I’m-going-to-jail way or anything.

This woman is in jail. Haiku jail perhaps.

Basically, I keep reading this series because it is teaching me about a Japan I never knew, one that had only recently rebuilt itself after the war and which was still trying to define itself against the West. I love seeing these depictions of the working classes and their struggles to make things work. And what they do when things don’t work. Are these stories Nobel Prize level stuff? Probably not. But they do a solid job of representing the human condition and making the reader question the status quo, so they win in my books.

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