Here’s a confession: sometimes, when I’m standing on the subway platform waiting for a train, I imagine what would happen if I fell or was pushed onto the tracks. I don’t picture myself dying, per se, but it’s a possibility. Is this a fantasy? Death wish? Realistic? I don’t know.
Everybody dies — that’s both a truism and the name of new book by Ken Tanaka with David Ury, who may or may not be the same person. Tanaka has become an internet star in the past few years, thanks to the viral success of his YouTube videos like “What kind of Asian are you?” (He also has a fun one called “What is art?”) Ury is an actor and stand-up comic. Whether or not they’re twin brothers, as they claim, or a man and his alter ego, together they’ve written a small cheery children’s book for grown-ups on the usually morbid subject of death.
Everybody Dies, published by HarperCollins, is clearly inspired by the children’s classic Everyone Poops, which was first published in Japan in the late 1970s (Tanaka was, according to his self-stated biography, raised in Japan). That book is a lovable and plotless compilation of text-and-picture pages featuring animals and humans, designed to teach children about pooping; Everybody Dies generally follows the same format, except its goal is hammering home the reality of death. “EVERY living thing must someday die,” proclaims the first page (a worm crawls underneath, saying, “I’m not afraid”). Both books make you laugh, but the latter does it with an added twinge of despair.
Take, for instance, the “Fun Activity” that asks you to “check the box if you know someone who died of … ” Options include overdose, war, and tigers. There’s also a “Match the Corpse to the Cause of Death” activity, a maze that asks you to “Help Baby Toby Die of Old Age” (as opposed to a peanut allergy or cancer along the way), and a chance to fill in your own tombstone and last will and testament. And I’d be remiss not to mention the two-page spread that tells readers, “Your pet cat won’t be around forever — neither will mommy and daddy.” Fun!
It is actually quite fun, though. The art is bright and colorful (most pages are washed in yellow, orange, or some combination of the two), with a goofy comics-meet-illustration style that perfectly complements — by undercutting — the content of the book. And the periodic whack of sadness or existential angst you might feel can be offset by marveling that, yes, they went there. (See: drawing of someone jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, accompanied by the text, “And others just can’t wait for death.”)
Is Everybody Dies much beyond fun? Probably not. But its honesty and cheekiness are refreshing, and far more engaging than the “Before I Die” public art shtick that was also recently given the book treatment, by St. Martin’s Press. Everybody dies, and everybody deals with that fact in their own way. I’ll take humor.
Everybody Dies, by Ken Tanaka with David Ury, is available from various online booksellers.