From the stack: A Single Match

If I had to pick a favorite boutique comics publisher, it would probably be Drawn & Quarterly, simply for the volume of work they’ve released that I really, really enjoy. If I isolate the portion of their catalog devoted to Japanese comics, their success rate is somewhat lower. I appreciate their efforts to bring avant-garde manga to English-reading audiences, but I don’t always particularly enjoy the individual works.

I like the work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, particularly his autobiography, A Drifting Life., and his early genre work, Black Blizzard. I found Seiichi Hayashi’s Red Colored Elegy more of its time than enduring. Susumu Katsumata’s Red Snow was pure pleasure, but Imiri Sakabashira’s The Box Man struck me as a fleeting, flashy fever dream. I’m happy to report that Oji Suzuki’s collection of short stories, A Single Match, wound up on the positive end of the spectrum, though that wasn’t an instantaneous verdict.

Suzuki has a very distinct rhythm and sensibility, and it isn’t immediately accessible. His stories have a quality that’s both dreamlike and naturalistic, and it took a few stories for me to yield to the style. In dreams, you find yourself recognizing people and places you’ve never been before, accepting circumstances that are totally alien to your experience and constructing memories that you claim as your own, even though you know that they aren’t. It’s a bit unsettling to see that illogically coherent frame of reference captured so precisely on paper, and since the experience of dreams isn’t an entirely comfortable one to begin with, the feeling of unease can be magnified.

“Tale of Remembrance” is an extraordinary example of this real-but-not approach. Narrative perspective seems to shift before you realize it. Inky blackness frames indelible images like a forlorn, faceless girl floating in the sky. Specific impressions that seem like memory are transformed into unsettling visual metaphors. Emotional undercurrents run from tender to suggestively menacing. It’s quite a reading experience, and it’s certainly not the only one of its kind in this collection.

Even the more ostensibly straightforward stories like “Mountain Town” keep you on uncertain footing. In this piece, a boy accompanies his father to return a scooter that he’d used for a part-time job. The journey is fraught with tension, unspoken and verbalized. The boy seesaws between uncomplicated comfort in his father’s company and painful awareness of the man’s shortcomings. Suzuki’s illustrations here are generally fairly concrete, though there are flashes of abstraction, like a memory is being filled in with a raw, emotional conceptualization.

As much as I ended up enjoying this collection, I have to admit to initial unease and impatience. It’s not a work that grabs you from the first page, and I’m not even sure the works are best appreciated as a single reading experience. They were published in Seirindo’s legendary alternative anthology, Garo, and I found myself wondering how they would have read in that context. The notion of getting a small dose of Suzuki’s work in the midst of a variety of other styles and subjects was appealing to me. When I read the stories again, I’ll sprinkle them in between other works to see if my theory is correct.

And I certainly will read them again. It’s nice to be challenged by a work, especially when the work rewards you for rising to that challenge. And I would happily read any of Suzuki’s work that Drawn & Quarterly chooses to publish, though maybe not all at once.