Good-Bye by Tatsumi

January 20, 2010

This review of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s Good-Bye first appeared in the January 2009 issue of The Comics Journal (#295). A few things have changed since then– Tatsumi’s book A Drifting Life has won some acclaim home & abroad, but my read of his work’s the same.

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Using ink and metaphor like cudgels, Yoshihiro Tatsumi never lacked clarity.  His world reeks of open sewers and dank bars.  With no hope in work, sex or family, his broken protagonists inevitably disappear into the city’s bowels, just as his stories have gone missing in Japan.

Few Japanese remember the man who invented gekiga, the “dramatic” version of manga.  Just two volumes of his solo works are now in print from Seirinkogeisha, the premiere (and small) avant-garde publisher.  The trends in manga have led away from the ponderous, grotty style he pioneered.  In the introduction, even manga expert Fred Schodt admits not knowing the work well.  That’s no surprise: in his day Tatsumi was overshadowed by the other founders of Gekiga Studio, like Shouichi Sakurai and Takao Satio, whose violent fantasy Golgo 13 now defines “gekiga” more than Tatsumi’s grim realism.

In the West, the view differs.  Tatsumi’s work appeared in English over twenty years ago, well before the manga boom, and Drawn and Quarterly’s lavish editions lend him considerable prestige.  Their Good-Bye includes three stories from the first version.  They look altogether better, with new translations by Yuji Oniki and fine design by Adrian Tomine.  These stories—“Good-Bye,” “Just a Man” and “Life is So Sad”—retain their blunt impact, now with a little finesse.  New stories include “Hell,” set in Hiroshima after the war, and “Night Falls Again,” set in the peepshows of south Osaka.  These are bitter stories from a voice outside Japan’s reconstruction, who does not believe in economic miracles.

These stories are also as subtle as pissing in someone’s face.  The key text, “Just a Man,” shows an impotent veteran failing again and again to cheat on his wife.  In the end, his only relief is climbing atop a useless cannon at Yasukuni Shrine, venerated by ultranationalists, and relieving himself.  Given Japan’s resurgent jingoism today—shown in outright threats against Yasukuni, a 2008 film on how its veneration has damaged foreign relations—“Just a Man” offers a certain satisfaction.  Nonetheless, these pleasures are not found in plot, character or metaphor.  I once referred to Tatsumi’s stories as “vicious shorthand,” an apt phrase that is not praise.

That is not to question their place in history.  Tatsumi gave the keys the Garo artists of the 70s, like the Tsuge brothers and the “three retainers” of Shinichi Abe, Ouji Suzuki and Masuzou Furukawa.  Their works offer more complexity and range, and have thus been remembered.  Tatsumi’s work lacks their virtues; nonetheless, Good-Bye shows exactly why he should not be forgotten.  His accomplishment lies in his images, none better than in “Sky Burial.”  The story follows a man who, hearing of a Tibetan tradition of sacrificing the dead to vultures, is hounded by birds.  The story’s final image, a full page worthy of framing, says more than all the plot and narrative before it.

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