Talk to My Back by Yamada Murasaki review – feminist awakenings in 1980s Japan

The first English translation of these subtle stories of self-worth and domestic frustration is a revelation

How to describe Talk to My Back, a classic collection of graphic stories by alt-manga’s feminist star, Yamada Murasaki? These tales of thwarted-ness and domestic ennui were written in the 80s, but Japan being what it is – only last month it was reported that when abortion pills are finally made available to women in the country, partner consent will still be required – their atmosphere often feels much closer to that of the 50s or early 60s. At moments, it’s almost as if Murasaki has set out to fictionalise Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. If her stories are pensive to the point of dreaminess, they’re also full of frustration, a discontent that simmers like a hot pan. I’m so glad Drawn & Quarterly has seen fit to put them into an English edition for the first time.

Translated by the comics historian Ryan Holmberg (who has also written a hugely informative introduction), these stories comprise an extended portrait of a housewife, Chiharu Yamakawa. She has two daughters (whom we watch growing up) and a husband (mostly absent) who treats her like a servant. Often lonely, there are days when she hardly recognises herself; she seems little more than an outline of a person, a sensation Murasaki captures on the page via a delicate all-body halo and, sometimes, by drawing her without features on her face.

Talk to My Back by Yamada Murasaki is published by Drawn & Quarterly (£23). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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