In seven short stories spanning just two volumes, Hiroki Endo’s Tanpenshu manages to weave a sprawling tapestry of human experience. After one story leaves us stewing in an emotional cocktail, the next will depict a fresh set of tormented people instantly bleeding out their neuroses from the page. It’s thematically ad hoc, sometimes whimsical, but mostly worming its way to the hearts of its characters.
Endo’s cast is a troubled one, with many characters capable of terrible acts in the commonest sense. ‘For Those of Us Who Don’t Believe in God’ portrays Tajima, a talented theatre director, as he commits domestic violence against his girlfriend, Kogure. Everyone in his troupe knows it but, as happens in real life, ignores his vice in favour of their own more pressing issues. That Endo never debates their deliberate oversight only draws more attention to it, and one gets the feeling this is his aim. Instead of dwelling on the rights and wrongs of the characters’ actions, he highlights the desperate philosophical and psychological strategies they devise to cope, and their weaknesses become not so much the point of their tragedy as footnotes to it.
For all their emotional complexity, the stories avoid plodding naval gazing because of Endo’s unfussy, evocative style and can be wolfed down like an action manga. Only, instead of transient excitement, the feeling Tanpenshu leaves in the gut is heavy and ponderous. On the one hand, the art is meticulous and channels all detail into making a scene look understated – it rarely draws attention to itself. But on occasion, Endo makes that same realism shock us with a violence that lingers in our subconscious. In one scene of ‘Because You’re Definitely A Cute Girl’, protagonist Minako unleashes years of repressed sexual confusion and anger. I mentally reeled back as soon as I turned the page and had to gather myself to absorb this frightening and breathtakingly dynamic image.
However, Tanpenshu‘s easily digestible nature essentially papers over the stark variation in quality among the stories – Endo’s emotional reach is broad but inconsistent. Volume two begins with ‘Hang’, a gratuitous sex scene seasoned with gratingly hollow characters and vague hints of world building, and arguably Tanpenshu‘s lowest ebb. Later, ‘Platform’, the story of a yakuza’s son struggling with his hatred of his father’s gangster life, creates an unexpectedly refined and heartbreaking climax. But rather than conclude the volume on this plateau of excellence, Endo decides to tack on the bewildering six-page ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ about teenagers mourning their petty romantic lives. Instead of a poignant roar, Tanpenshu’s final words are delivered in a puerile whimper.
These flaws never overshadow Tanpenshu‘s overall success: despite its lapses, it is an intelligent and gripping experience with great lingering power. I enjoyed how every new chapter could start anywhere and spin us gasping in new directions – not to mention Endo’s realism is a rare indulgence. With the haunting, painful grace delivered by its flagpole narratives, Tanpenshu continues to haunt the mind long after we have closed its pages.