In the 2015 Doujinshi Round-Up, I talked about my love of the Onna to series put out by Popocomi. And it’s a series that’s continued beyond just those two issues. Not only that, Popocomi is not a circle or a publisher, but rather the project of Popotame, a super-indie bookstore and gallery space in a residential neighbourhood of Ikebukuro, hidden in many twists and turns of streets that I would never have found it on my own, even with the aid of the map in my phone. I am just not that good at directions and getting places.
But fortunately, I went with my friend who is not only super-good at directions and getting places, but also makes his place of residence in Ikebukuro, and so instantly understood where this weirdo place was and led me straight to it. Only to discover that it is closed sometimes on random days. And it happened to be one of those days when we set forth on this bookstore adventure. So we high-fived ourselves for finding it, peered through the windows at the tantalizing hints of books we could see in the gloom—surely arousing suspicion in the neighbouring houses as two foreigners peeping will do—and then went to the nearby park where we sat and drank beer and watched a strange meeting of a dog club take place under the intense, watchful stare of what appeared to be the park cat. It was a weird scene, befitting the neighbourhood of a weird bookstore.
But we had a mission! And it wasn’t to watch dogs hanging out (although that’s a pretty good mission, actually). So after checking that they were really open this time, we set forth another day, now much more confident of our route. We went in, saw the current exhibition of various hippopotamus-related pieces, and then I poked around in delight at their selection of books, while my friend/guide went over to the convenience store to get snacks and use the loo, being not too interested himself in Japanese books. But they don’t just carry Japanese books, friends! If you are looking for indie comics in English in Tokyo, Popotame has got you covered! Or at least offers up a small selection to tide you over. I was pleasantly surprised to see that they carry kuš!
I grabbed the last two Onna to issues, an assortment of other doujinshi, some postcards by Tsuchika Nishimura, and Aru Oshiire Atama Otoko no Hanashi, even though this was toward the end of my stay in Japan, and I was very conscious about buying things that weighed anything. Especially since I was pretty sure my suitcases were already overweight with books. And Aru Oshiire is a hardcover book, albeit slim, so it weighs a lot more than a doujinishi. But it was just too beautiful to walk away from. The book is done in wood prints from start to finish, something I’ve never seen in manga before. I’ve seen manga that reminds me of printmaking, like Naoto Yamakawa’s sharply delineated black lines and crosshatching filled panels, but never a manga that was so painstakingly made in print, every panel another piece of wood carved out and stamped on the page.
And it seems this is not the first book of wood print manga Fujimiya’s done; his last book Kuronekodo Shoten no Ichiya is also wood prints, and he notes in the afterword to Aru Oshiire that if Kuroneko is the “light”, then Aru is the “dark.” And while I can’t entirely attest to the truth of that, not having read Kuroneko, I certainly hope it’s true. Because Aru is about as dark as you can get.
A brief text prologue informs us that a young man, living on his own, becomes an introvert through his distrust of people, and ends up a shut-in, neglecting his university studies. He wishes that he could live inside the closet like his futon and quickly amends that wish to becoming a closet so that he never has to deal with people. And then, of course, he wakes up from a nap and discovers that his head had become a box, like a tiny futon closet.
We then follow our closet-headed protagonist through seven stories, detailing his life of homelessness and day jobs through the heady days of the Bubble, the crash, and the years that follow. He muses on why private property exists, why homeless people can’t just live in empty houses, why human beings are even born anyway. Is it only to propagate the human race? Is that something that needs propagating? What purpose does the human race serve? Yes, a man with a closet for a head despairs at humanity in general. Lest this get too existential, however, Fujimiya offers us moments of more grounded sadness, like Kuukai, a middle-aged homeless man who lives in the same park as Closet Head. He goes round to convenience stores and collects the food that’s gone off, and then shares it with the other homeless people in the park. But then everyone gets food poisoning from some egg salad sandwiches, and Kuukai’s stock in homeless society plummets. Eventually, he gets drunk and freezes to death. Just in case you felt like Closet Head’s concerns were too abstract.
It’s definitely not a book you want to be reading when you’re feeling unmoored or depressed already, but if you can face the darkness, there’s a lot Fujimiya’s putting out there for his readers. And pages and pages of beautiful, detailed, and perfectly paced wood prints takes the edge off the existential dread. Or rather highlights the stark nature of reality, but rendered in the most lovely way. It’s honestly gorgeous. Fujimiya does all kinds of things I never really thought possible with wood cuts, like the zippy motion of a man running away or plumes of smoke rising up from a cigarette or a fire.
Obviously, there are comparisons to be drawn with Kobo Abe’s classic (is it a classic? I’m going to just go ahead and give it classic status) The Box Man, given that that book also features a box-headed protagonist. But whereas the titular box man is an active player in his destiny, fashioning his box deliberately and abandoning his old life in favour of a life of box-headed homelessness, the closet-headed man of Aru is passive, drifting along to whatever destiny awaits him, certain only of his distrust of other people and his own self-despair. The end he meets is in a way the logical progression of this passive drifting, becoming as he does an object in the stories of other people in the last two chapters.
Fujimiya appears to be a mainstay of AX, and both his books were published by Seirin Kogeisha, so I’m actually surprised I’ve never come across his work before. Or maybe I came across it at a time when I wasn’t ready to take it in. Just a couple pages of Aru can generate enough existential angst to keep you lying anxiously awake for several days at a time. But I’m too adult now to get that anxious about the big picture; the only things that keep me up at night are my deadlines and whether or not I remembered to pay the hydro bill.