by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Drawn & Quarterly
Most people in the States—even comics people—don’t know the name Yoshihiro Tatsumi, but they should. Tatsumi is a vastly influential figure in the history of manga, the Japanese comics style that developed in postwar Japan and that has exploded in popularity abroad in the past decade or so; until fairly recently, however, few people here had ever heard of him.
Tatsumi is credited with being the creator of gekiga, comics for adult readers, which contrasted with the manga that was prevalent in the 1950s and ’60s, generally aimed at children. He is, in a sense, the godfather of alternative Japanese comics, and a look at any of his work, much of which is now being repackaged and re-published by Drawn & Quarterly, will instantly tell you why.
Tatsumi wrote about and drew everyday people, a practice that in and of itself carries historical weight, but more than that, he focused on lonely, marginalized everyday people. Reading Good-Bye, D&Q’s third compilation of his selected short stories, makes it immediately clear that Tatsumi’s Japan is not the bright, shiny place we might be tempted to envision. His is a dark Japan, full of confusion, depravity, and despair.
The book has nine tales, which range from intensely sad to kind of bizarre, to outright disturbing. What unites them is a focus on the underbelly of Japan—how all of the characters reside on the fringes of society. Together, the stories paint an affecting picture of a country scarred by the Atomic bomb (even though Tatsumi was writing these more than 20 years after its dropping, in 1971 and ’72) and the darkness it brought, a country still figuring out how to move on. The characters are struggling to live, often both literally and existentially, and in doing so they come to represent something larger than themselves. What they think and feel is more important than the specifics of who they are.
The book’s art is calmer and simpler than that of today’s highly stylized manga, but the stories are also far less action-packed (in some, pretty much nothing happens). They rely instead on psychological drama to engage the reader. Tatsumi uses close ups and interesting, unusual perspectives sometimes, and quite effectively, but for the most part, the art will not blow away anyone who’s read a decent amount of contemporary manga. Of course, if you stop to think about how he was one of the originals, a pioneer in the field, then all of it—the subject matter, the drawing, the story-telling—becomes that much more impressive.