by Imiri Sakabashira
Drawn & Quarterly
Drawn & Quarterly continue with their mission to bring the work of Japan’s greatest Gekiga-kas to a wider audience (Gekiga being Japanese for “dramatic pictures”, a term first used by Yoshihiro Tatsumi to distinguish them from Manga’s “irresponsible pictures“).
But The Box Man is something else again; incredibly strange and as far removed from the subtlety of Red Snow as possible, but it’s also an incredible, spectacular ride. Wordless until the last few pages, it’s a bizarre, psychedelic journey of a book, mysterious, intriguing, grotesque at times and incredibly, ridiculously surreal throughout.
(The Box Man and cat thing on the first of several scooters. From The Box Man by Imiri Sakabashira, published by Drawn & Quarterly.)
The Box Man travels through a modern urban landscape of decaying ghetto sprawl on a journey to somewhere, directed, driven, relentlessly moving on. On his back is a box. The box. Inside the box is…. well, that’s the reveal on the final few pages, but suffice it to say that it’s alive, it’s dangerous and it’s somewhat crustacean.
The Box Man is profoundly about the ride – literal and metaphorical, overground and underground, junk-yard modern culture mixing with ancient symbolism and folklore.
It’s structured beautifully, a gentle put-put-put of a start, as the Box Man and the first of his scooters (accidents and ambushes take their toll) come into view. Something cat like with a tortoise shell joins him for the duration, an unseen comedy sidekick of a hitchhiker, and the bleak, blank countryside gives way to the urban decay. And then the the pace starts to accelerate and the surrealism kicks in.
(The full page fetish style views that The Box Man glimpses as he passes through – make of them what you will. From The Box Man by Imiri Sakabashira, published by Drawn & Quarterly.)
Pursued by police following an altercation between the box and a now deceased police officer, The Box Man heads indoors past a series of increasingly fetishistic and disturbing tableaux, a break in the relentless drive of the story. These are graphic, disturbing things, full pages that are as open to as much interpretation as you really want to put into it. Most previews I’ve seen and most of the online focus has been on this very small part of the book which I think misses some of the best The Box Man has to offer – this is merely a shocking break in the tale – the middle 8 of a great song perhaps.
Once more outside and scootering on again, The Box Man enters a long, breathless race to it’s finale and the entirety of the final third act is an incredible race through the shanty town’s streets and across it’s rooftops, choreographed and spectacular….
The artwork throughout The Box Man is incredible kinetic stuff and with an effortless sense of motion that pushes the eye naturally across panels and pages. But the wordless pages and the relentless pace of the story make it far too easy to simply flick through. And then you’d be missing so much of what makes The Box Man such a trippy, insane ride. Go slow, absorb, delight, soak up the gonzo moments, let the strange wash over you.
The Box Man is one long surreal dream/nightmare of a comic, there are moments that it’s like watching one of the strangest platform video games you’ll ever see, as the Box Man rides his way through the scene, but the abiding feeling upon putting it down is that you’ve just shared an incredible ride.
It’s worth it just for the wonderful movement on display through the story. My problems with the central section are minor quibbles, more reflecting my tastes than the quality of the tale. The Box Man, purely for the kinetic brilliance it shows, is the best of these Drawn & Quarterly Gekiga I’ve seen so far.