Deep in the murky subterranean depths of your being, there are questions that can’t even be asked, much less answered. Hidden truths obfuscated by so many layers of denial and reification that the very act of keeping them hidden has become a central function of your identity. Or maybe that should be of both your identities — the one you’ve constructed for yourself, and the one you show the public. What you see is never what you get with either, of course, because you desperately want to avoid what you need to see just as desperately as you know you really should be doing no such thing. Think of those parties you went to in your twenties that you knew your ex was going to be at and there was nobody in the world you wanted to see less, and nobody in the world you wanted to see more, than them — only there’s no ex here, this internal conflict is with your own self.
That’s where Tana Oshima’s comics begin, and as for where they go — well, they take you places, that’s for sure, and in her new “solo anthology” book, Theater Of Cruelty, which she’s self-published as a very nice and sturdy little squarebound paperback, she takes you to more places than ever. And proves with every page that the title she chose is no mere catchy attention-grabber — in fact, it’s a case of straight-up truth in advertising.
Is the medium the message? Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it is : herein Oshima certainly employs a lot of the former in service of the latter, utilizing pen and ink, paints, sumi inks, possibly toilet paper(?), and even stuff from the kitchen cabinet to convey — primarily in English but also in Spanish and, momentarily, about a dozen other languages — a sense of loss of self from the self, whether this exile is precipitated by a noisy neighbor, a vivid dream, a reality that seems like a vivid dream, or a purely metaphorical construct. The longest “story” in here reads like a dusty folk tale, about an old woman too ugly to be seen, but the real ugliness lies in the hearts of the people who cannot stand to see her; the shortest entry is a message scrawled in numerous languages and non-Arabic alphabets that makes it clear that you are the “stranger in a strange land” this time around. Two sides, then, one coin — alienation both inflicted and inflicted upon, no “winner” regardless of which side the coin lands on.
Visual poetry, comics poetry, whatever you want to call it — this book is Oshima at her most lyrical, her most abstract, and yet also her most conceptually dense. Prior works hinted things were moving in this direction, rigorous self-examination as seen through myriad funhouse mirrors before being stripped of pretense and rendered raw — but how she would get there remained an open question. Yes, we still see some of her trademark four-panel grids — two pages of which are devoid of illustration — but that’s not to confine the expressive nature of this work in any way, nor to even strictly organize it per se : don’t get hung up on the delivery mechanisms here, people, this is a mainline injection of everything you can’t put words to but know to be true. Longing may be the biggest part of it, or perhaps more accurately the most readily-defined of its components, but peel away that layer, thick as it may be, and what’s underneath it is the soul-numbing fear that the abyss has already gazed back at you too intently, and that if you want to re-assemble the fragments of your authentic self, you’re on you own. And always were.
Which doesn’t actually preclude this volume from offering a few grim laughs, believe it or not — and well-earned ones, at that. None of them alleviate the pressures inherent in the task at hand, but I dunno — sometimes a moment’s pause can feel like a lifeline extended. And I don’t think Oshima is imparting a simple litany of gloom and doom here, nor of existential angst for its own sake. A game played for keeps is still a game, after all, even if the only rules is that all the rules are out the window. And the sheer fluidity of Oshima’s art and verse go some way toward cushioning what should, by all rights, be a bumpy ride. A darkness that lures you in is all well and good, but one that may not even be entirely dark? Hey, that’s even better.
You’d do well not to mistake that for an easy way out, though. This book has been moving from foreground to background and back and forth again (and again, and again) in my mind since I first read it a couple of days ago, and I imagine it will be doing that for quite some time. But then I suppose that’s to be expected when you meet a complete stranger — only to find that it’s yourself. I’d like to thank Tana Oshima for serving as a conduit for the introduction, but to be honest, that other me still scares the one that I delude myself into believing I already know pretty well.
Theater Of Cruelty is available for $12.00 directly from Tana Oshima at https://dostoievskiswife.bigcartel.com/product/the-things-i-wrote-on-toilet-paper
Review wrist check – Longines “Legend Diver” riding a matte-finish “Supreme NATO” from Crown & Buckle in a color they call “olive hade,” but I just call olive green.