A New Manga Collection Explores Sex and the Wilderness
The first story in Susumu Katsumata's collection of 10 gekiga, "Mulberries," begins with a typically comic situation—an early adolescent boy and girl bicker back and forth. Within just a few pages, however, the girl has nearly been raped and the boy has been given relationship advice by a mythical creature, while Katsumata also pauses to close in on bugs and the silhouettes of bathers in the distance. These moments don't climax to any resolution, however. Instead, these observations of rural life—sharp contrasts of serenity and cruelty—pull the reader into the book and set the tone for the remaining stories.
In this collection, the late Katsumata explores his own rather harsh but somehow still idyllic youth in Japan's countryside in the years after World War II. The typically cartoonish characters live out their dramas among fine etchings of farmlands, mountains surrounded by rain clouds, and landscapes filled with animal life, reflecting Katsumata's upbringing and enlivening the standard manga style. Katsumata even goes so far as to include a two-panel close-up of a pissing bull, finely detailed. This moment aside, the landscapes are beautiful to observe, but they are the backdrop to a rough existence where women are regularly assaulted (though in the story "Torojiro Kappa," beatings serve as part of the woman's sexual gratification); monks disregard their religion for drink and lust, as in both "The Dream Spirit" and "The Sack"; and nature is quick to kill, occasionally with supernatural means, as in "Kokeshi."
Katsumata plays with the interaction of nature and society most of all in the titular story. Here, a young man's sexual encounters with a prostitute and, later, a young admirer overlap the ideas of affection and base sexual desire by projecting these concepts into the setting of the characters, using the process of sake brewing, snowstorms, and hard labor to investigate these ideas more fully.
Although life is tough in Katsumata's world, stories such as "The Specter," "Kokeshi," and "Wild Geese Memorial Service" imagine nature as a symbol for trying to do more than just survive. With mythical creatures screaming "perverts!" at townspeople, talking tanuki with testicles exposed, and obese mountain hags appearing in the snow, the stories aren't idealizations of nature simply as an innocent model that humanity should return to. Instead, Katsumata gives a voice (sometimes a literal voice) to nature that interacts with modern society and tries to improve humanity while keeping all its profanities intact.