Yoshihiro Tatsumi adopts "rakugo", in Japanese meaning "fallen words", a kind of comedic fable-storytelling that was an aural tradition for many centuries in Japan. In these eight collected stories, Tatsumi's masterful storytelling is shorn of its usual tragic veil seen in books like "Good-bye" and "Abandon the Old in Tokyo", instead taking a light-hearted stance tinged with physical comedy.
The stories are all brilliant, bar none: Tatsumi sets all of them in the Edo period so the reader is treated to traditional Japanese culture set in a romanticised past, free of the Western influence of later years. They have a flavour of whimsy and fantasy about them - one involves a drunken artist paying for his bed and board by drawing some sparrows onto a screen. Once sunlight falls upon them, the sparrows come to life! In a different story, a man whose wife and mistress die after cursing one another through a voodoo-type doll, is haunted by their ghosts depicted as fiery spirits; while in another story a penniless man meets the God of Death and hatches a scheme to make money from the Grim Reaper.
The book is set out like a Japanese book so the reader has to read from right to left instead of left to right, though of course the writing is in English. It adds to overall experience of reading Japanese literature.
The aspect of the stories that I think will jar the reader are the endings which are by turns anti-climactic, bizarre, and slapsticky, as if Tatsumi ran out of space and abruptly ended each story on a strange note. This is in fact part of the "rakugo" style of storytelling where each story has comedic elements with the ending providing a punchline to the tale. The stories of "rakugo" were meant to be performed so each story had to have physical comedy as a part of them with the story changing depending on who told it. Tatsumi ambitiously converts this stylistic storytelling into comics and, while the comedy might not translate so well for a 21st century Western audience (hell, even Japanese readers might find the comedy a bit lax), this is all part of the rakugo experience.
But this is a minor complaint as the stories are so brilliantly told that I didn't care about how it ended but how he got there. Tatsumi started writing comics in his teens and is now in his late 70s - the man understands comics so indelibly that reading him is an absolute joy. He understands how to set out a story and tell it perfectly with the right amount of panels - he is a true master of the art and reading "Fallen Words" reminded me once again how much I enjoy reading his comics, as well as reminding me why I love comics in the first place. It's an art form unlike any other and when it's done well, it's the best thing in the world.
While this isn't Tatsumi's best work - read "A Drifting Life" for that - for readers who want to sample his work without perhaps the darker tones of his more well-known books "The Push Man" and the two I mentioned at the start, "Fallen Words" is a fine place to begin. As a long-time fan of his work, I loved all eight strange tales of historical Japan and it's collection of con artists, geishas, ghosts, and artists with themes of death, life, fun, silliness, and love.
And now, I leave you in the capable hands of the next story...