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Talk To My Back Manga Review

Talk To My Back Manga Review

-Written by: Will | March 2023

A mom put her children to bed. Finally, after a long day, she has the apartment to herself. The night is hers. What will she do? Nothing. She has the TV on, but she doesn't watch. She has a book open, but she doesn't read. Nothing nights like this scare her. She imagines a shadow reaching from the wall to grab her. A phone breaks the silence. It's her husband, saying he will have to spend the night at work. They say they love each other, but you wonder how much they mean it. To not be alone, she draws a man in the air. At first, she teases the imaginary man. Then she realizes only this figurement of her imagination can provide a loving embrace.

Thus begins Talk to My Back, a manga classic finally getting its due in English. It is the most well-known work by overlooked pioneer Murasaki Yamada (credited in the book as Yamada Murasaki in the Japanese tradition of placing the surname first). Her feminist manga on family life broke new ground in the manga industry. Yamada's manga has reached many popular creators, including Hayao Miyazaki. Now, English readers can find out what makes Yamada such an important figure. Even if it didn't have historical significance, this manga is a terrific book that deserves your time.

Taking inspiration from Yamada's own life, Talk to My Back is told through the eyes of Chiharu. Her days include housework, raising her children, and serving her husband. But is that all her life should be? She thought so before she got married. But now, years later, she needs something else. She's smart, talented, and witty; why shouldn't she deserve more? Chapter by chapter, the series shows her rediscovery of self-worth and independence.

What makes this so effective is the way Murasaki is able to convey that journey. Yamada's art is full of wispy line work, inspired by the fashion illustrations she worked on. Everyday life is given elegance and beauty. Where people may see banality or even derision, Yamada finds love and respect. But there is a sharp critique underneath that beauty.

A sense of loneliness underlies almost every panel. Negative space is Yamada's biggest tool and she uses it often. Panels rarely have backgrounds, creating empty voids for Chiharu to inhabit. Chiharu is portrayed in the center of the panel. Not only is she unable to escape the confines of society, but she also can't break the confines of the author's panels. Then there are the "splash pages," that end most chapters. Again, only Chiharu exists in these spaces, alone in her thoughts. And those thoughts are angry.

Talk to My Back has a lot to say about the world's sexism. Chiharu's husband is terrible by modern standards. He is absent from the home, and when he is he bosses Chiharu around. Despite, or in spite, of Chiharu's verbal takedowns, he acts as an obstacle to her dreams. But by the standards at the time, he acts above society's expectations. The manga does a good job of showing that sexism is bigger than one person. In another example, Chiharu's boss replaces her with a younger, unmarried woman, but she doesn't hold a grudge against him personally. This is just the way the patriarchal society teaches men, and enables them to act this way. This systemic approach to criticism allows commentary that is both bold and just underneath the surface.

The manga uses everyday life to subtly (and not so subtly) show the problems of society and possible solutions. It could be as simple as Chiharu having a day off and coming home to a mess that she has to clean up. Another could be her having time with her children. Or maybe she speaks up to her husband about wanting to achieve some financial independence. The plots may seem benign, but each has a golden nugget of commentary if you know where to look. You'll want to look at Yamada's great art at play.

Talk to My Back is a kind of manga I haven't read before, and one I fear I'll never read again. How many manga deal with being the woman head of household? How many are pointed critiques told in a witty and understated way? How many of them deliver a unique visual experience? In English, I'm not aware of any. Luckily, I now know one.

Talk To My Back Manga

Talk to My Back Manga features story and art by Murasaki Yamada.

"Now that we've woken from the dream, what are we going to do?" Chiharu thinks to herself, rubbing her husband's head affectionately.

Set in an apartment complex on the outskirts of Tokyo, Murasaki Yamada's Talk to My Back (1981–84) explores the fraying of Japan's suburban middle-class dreams through a woman's relationship with her two daughters as they mature and assert their independence, and with her husband, who works late and sees his wife as little more than a domestic servant.

While engaging frankly with the compromises of marriage and motherhood, Yamada remains generous with the characters who fetter her protagonist. When her husband has an affair, Chiharu feels that she, too, has broken the marital contract by straying from the template of the happy housewife.

Yamada saves her harshest criticisms for society at large, particularly its false promises of eternal satisfaction within the nuclear family–as fears of having been "thrown away inside that empty vessel called the household" gnaw at Chiharu's soul.

Yamada was the first cartoonist in Japan to use the expressive freedoms of alt-manga to address domesticity and womanhood in a realistic, critical, and sustained way. A watershed work of literary manga, Talk to My Back was serialized in the influential magazine Garo in the early 1980s, and is translated by Eisner-nominated Ryan Holmberg.

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