[Wormlight] A Little Off Center: The Works of Dowman Sayman
If there was a writer who could write about serial killers, robot detectives, a very compassionate tiger and make it seem normal would you be willing to listen?
One of my favorite novels is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami. I read it when I started high school and once every year since then. The story follows a man who loses his wife and goes off to look for her. Throughout his journey he encounters a psychic prostitute, a nihilistic teenage girl, a war vet that survived a nightmare, and many other oddities. Yet despite all this the main character takes these things in strides and accepts whatever comes his way as if it were completely normal.
There was something about that I always liked. I think it’s because since nothing in this world is normal, everything becomes normal. Magical realism is the proper term for the genre if we’re being technical but I prefer the term alternate realism. I feel something calming whenever I read any of Murakami’s books and recently I’ve felt this same feeling reading the works of a certain mangaka.
His name is Dowman Sayman and he writes stories about girls who fall in love with tigers, of a group of oddmen, a hotel and its strange inhabitants, and many more.
A talented artist with a distinctive art style that’s heavy on ink and stylization loaded with personality. A popular artist in his own right but it wouldn’t be until a couple months ago I would read his manga for the first time.
It was a manga titled The Voynich Hotel. It’s about the aforementioned hotel located in the middle of an island in the middle of nowhere. A man travels to escape his life back in Japan only to encounter two maids, one missing an eye, the other sewn back together, a mangaka with the proclivity to procrastinate, a trio of female drug dealers, a very charming gay assassin, a suicidal chef, and the hotel owner who is also a luchador. The people of this nowhere island live ordinary lives that are anything but.
Likewise his anthology series Nickelodeon which has been making its rounds around some of the more popular internet readers share similar eccentricities. How many other authors do you know will write a short manga about conjoined twins? How about cultist stuffed animals? Surely you’ve read stories involving a shootout with an undead Jesse James?
I haven’t though and that’s what was so exciting about reading his manga. It’s so different, so refreshingly iconoclastic that the premises alone would have me excited about the man and his work.
But style can only take you so far.
I think by now some of you understand the types of stories I’m drawn to. I like stories about love, loneliness, and life but I like them a bit twisted. Not necessarily darker or unhappier but I want a different take on the matter. A unique angle to study the topic from. If someone can present to me something different about the same familiar subject then that’s all I could ever want from a story.
For this article I spoke with thetsuuyaku, the person responsible for introducing me to Dowman Sayman’s works and translating his work to English. I wanted to get the perspective from the person who takes the time to translate Sayman’s work for a larger audience out of love for the material.
thetsuuyaku said “I like how Dowman explores the darker side of love. The majority of Dowman’s portrayals of love are hardly ever idealized or sugar-coated. It’s usually either dark, twisted, sacrificial, or at the least, just clumsy. I don’t want to sound like a kill-joy or anything, but really, there is that side to love as well. It might not be as comfortable to explore as the romantic, positive side of things, but it’s there. I imagine anyone writing a manga like that could easily go too far and end up with something that tries to be too profound for it’s own good, but I like how Dowman goes into heavier territory without ever seeming to take himself too seriously. There’s always a bit of hope, irony, or humor there, too.”
And I agree. There is an often unexplored aspect of life. A weirder side that is neither good or bad but simply abnormal. Looking at this side of things has a tendency to make a person feel…uncomfortable. But it still exists in all things, love, life, society, and they are things that we rationalize in order to cope with just how strange they are. So if it’s natural to normalize these things, Sayman takes it to its extremes and still keeps things understated all while conveying poignant ideas about these universal constants.
“I’ll keep wearing high heels…If only as a small punishment for what my sister has to do for me.” (Nickelodeon, Scene 7)
“When I found out there was no string connecting my finger to yours, that’s when I cut my hand off” (Scene 6)
“When a landmine charbroiled my father, mother, and brother to a medium rare…and I became anorexic, he gave me courage” (The Voynich Hotel, 15 Days)
It’s hard to write a story. It’s even harder to write about heartbreak, about not getting the girl or defying the expectations of the reader in those romantic situations. It’s something else entirely to finish reading a 8-9 page chapter (The average length of Sayman’s chapters which only makes what he does more impressive) and realize that there was something so subtle about how sad that story was the only you can do is accept it quietly and maybe even reflect a bit about how much we really understand anything.
Dowman Sayman is an amazing story teller. He can rope you along a story wildly absurd and convince you that it’s normal, that these are all parts of life that we’re somehow not noticing. He brings in references from all over the world (Ridley Scott, Makgeolli, Persona) that just make his works even easier to relate to, comes up with wildly absurd situations. He writes stories that are disturbing, funny, and unique, but ultimately human.
[Find all of his translated works here (NSFW) and special thanks to thetsuuyaku for his help on this article and all of his hard work as a translator. Please support both their hard work.]