Yoshihiro Tatsumi

by on Sep.23, 2009, under Comics

Since 2006, Optic Nerve author Adrian Tomine has been editing a series of English collections of the work of manga lion Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Frederick Schodt (English translator of such famous manga as Astro Boy and Ghost in the Shell)  writes in the introduction to the latest of these that Tatsumi is relatively little read in Japan now, so these collections can in fact be considered a rediscovery.

Drifting life

Tatsumi is apparently most famous as the inventor of the term and concept “gekiga” (“dramatic pictures”) in 1957 to distinguish the serious, adult-themed stories he wanted to do from the rest of manga (“whimsical pictures”), then largely dominated by work for children. A Drifting Life, the latest of his books brought out by Drawn and Quarterly, tells the story of how he and his colleagues developed and changed manga into gekiga.

It starts in 1948, when Tatsumi’s slightly fictionalized stand-in Hiroshi Katsumi is thirteen, and ends in 1960. Alongside the development of Katsumi’s art we see developments in Japanese society and culture, including the many movies that Tatsumi loved, from The Third Man to The Seven Samurai to the French film People of No Importance.

For anyone who’s interested in the early development of manga, the book is a incredible find. For one who isn’t, it’s a bit of a bore, especially since it weighs in at a staggering 800-plus pages.


It’s also not the best way to acquaint yourself with Tatsumi’s work. Where A Drifting Life leaves Katsumi at 25, just as he’s coming to grips with his form, the three collections out so far from Drawn and Quarterly—The Push Man & Other Stories, Abandon the Old in Tokyo, and Good-Bye—give us Tatsumi’s work in his mid-thirties, at the height of his powers.

And it’s amazing work. With a plain drawing style that uses no shading but cross-hatches and recalls film noir, Tatsumi tells modern stories of despair and loneliness. In Good-Bye, for example, the opening story (PDF) describes an iconic photo from Hiroshima that everyone believes shows a the incinerated shadow of devoted son giving his mother a back massage—until the son steps forward to tell the photographer that it’s really his friend’s shadow there on the wall, not his, and the friend was in the midst of murdering his mother at his behest. In another story, an old boot fetishist plots how he can die trampled to death by women, since his times with booted prostitutes are the only happy moments in his life. In a third, a horny young man wanders around at night, visiting peep shows and masturbating unhappily.

Highly recommended. You can read most of one story from The Push Man here (PDF) and a part of one from Abandon the Old in Tokyo here (PDF).

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