Manga Review: Talk to My Back

Title: Talk to My Back / Shin Kirari

Mangaka: Yamada Murasaki

US Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly

Status: Complete

Age Relevance: Adult

How Essential Is It?: Must Have for Adult Collections

Curricular Connections?: Great for discussions of feminist theory and thought. Could be used in high school ELA as a read-alike for literary works on feminist though.

Reader’s Advisory Tags: motherhood, feminism, Japanese Culture, identity.

Content Warnings: Infidelity.

Publisher Synopsis:

A celebrated masterwork shimmering with vulnerability from one of alt-manga’s seminal female artists.
“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.

This is a quiet and beautiful manga about what it means to be a mother and a wife. A gentle yet simmering contemplation of domestic womanhood, Talk to My Back shows what manga is capable of conveying. Using sparse visuals, this manga demonstrates both the joys and the tyranny of domesticity.

This manga is unquestionably art from start to finish. It uses the medium to convey so much longing and resentment. It tackles topics that are distinctly adult, with sincerity and deftness.

This is a manga I recommend for adults, to be able to see what manga is capable of, to expand their horizons. This is absolutely essential for any public or academic library to have on its shelf.

Reading this, I felt a distinct sensation of having read something profoundly personal. The protagonist is often faceless, the illustrations sparse and open.

And yet there’s a tension broiling in each frame and page. And it’s not necessarily directed solely at the husband. It’s toward a society that is built around such an existence.

In all, I highly recommend purchasing this if your patrons are adults, or for your personal collection. It might serve as a curricular connection to works such as “The Yellow Wallpaper” or The Awakening in a high school ELA course. That said, this is a work for adults about adults, and it might not necessarily resonate for audiences any lower than high school. This is why I prefer relevance to appropriateness- this is “appropriate” for all ages if you were to strictly think in terms of lack of nudity of cursing, but it isn’t relevant to younger readers.

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