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Talk to My Back by Yamada Murasaki review – feminist awakenings in 1980s Japan | Comics and graphic novels

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How to describe Talk to My Back, a classic collection of graphic stories by alt-manga’s feminist star, Yamada Murasaki? These tales of thwarted-ness and domestic ennui were written in the 80s, but Japan being what it is – only last month it was reported that when abortion pills are finally made available to women in the country, partner consent will still be required – their atmosphere often feels much closer to that of the 50s or early 60s. At moments, it’s almost as if Murasaki has set out to fictionalise Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. If her stories are pensive to the point of dreaminess, they’re also full of frustration, a discontent that simmers like a hot pan. I’m so glad Drawn & Quarterly has seen fit to put them into an English edition for the first time.

Translated by the comics historian Ryan Holmberg (who has also written a hugely informative introduction), these stories comprise an extended portrait of a housewife, Chiharu Yamakawa. She has two daughters (whom we watch growing up) and a husband (mostly absent) who treats her like a servant. Often lonely, there are days when she hardly recognises herself; she seems little more than an outline of a person, a sensation Murasaki captures on the page via a delicate all-body halo and, sometimes, by drawing her without features on her face.

a page from Talk to My Back.
‘Discontent that simmers like a hot pan’: a page from Talk to My Back. Photograph: Yamada Murasaki

What should she do? Marriage has come to seem like a dream, one from which she hopes to wake up soon – and 250 pages into the book, she does indeed get a part-time job. However, the reader can’t help but notice that for Chiharu “emancipation” – this is the word Murasaki pointedly chooses – will ultimately lie in the dolls she takes to making, exquisite mannequins a local boutique will sell for thousands of yen. Only by replicating her own captivity, it seems, can she ever hope to find freedom.

Murasaki (1948-2009), who first published these stories in the influential magazine Garo, based much of her work on her own life – she was a single mother – and it shows on every page. She was the first cartoonist to demonstrate that the expressive freedoms of alternative manga could be accessed by wives, mothers and sisters and, as Holmberg notes, the central relationship at the heart of Talk to My Back is not that of Chiharu with her husband, nor even with the daughters on whom she dotes – it’s with herself. Via her sketchy black-and-white drawings, so fluid and so eloquent, Murasaki captures her character’s every mood shift and internal contradiction, her guilt as well as her longing (more than once, other people tell Chiharu she should be “grateful” for her life – as if she didn’t know this herself). But Murasaki leavens this by recalling, too, the quotidian pleasures and rituals of home: the jokes, the teasing, a delicious (“slurp”) bowl of noodles. The result is a cross-cultural book about female self-worth – about where it comes from and why it sometimes disappears – that stands the test of time in the most remarkable way.

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