A New Discovery of an Old Master: Yoshihiro Tatsumi

In my library system, there are one seven books that pop up when you search “Adrian Tomine,” the famed New Yorker illustrator: New York Drawings, Shortcomings, Killing and Dying, which are actually written and illustrated by him; three collections of comics and illustrations from various publishers; and Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi (Tomine edited it.). Initially, I was resistant to picking up Abandon the Old in Tokyo because I wasn’t interested in someone else’s work. I didn’t want to know what Tatsumi had done, and I didn’t consider editing truly reflective of Tomine’s work. Fortunately, I’m a bit obsessive and couldn’t resist the opportunity to read a Tomine introduction. And thus, a new obsession was born.

Yoshihiro Tatsumi is the “Grandfather of Japanese Alternative Comics (Gekiga)” and helped bring manga from the cutsey, Disney-inspired, child-focused themes that Osamu Tezuka (the Father of Manga) pioneered to a wider audience. While Tatsumi certainly gained influence from Tezuka, which can be seen in the rounded faces, wide eyes, luscious lashes, and thick line work of his art, he rejected the then-current assumption that manga should be all-ages. He wanted to show blood, which was taboo at the time, and explore the darker side of society, including cheating wives, abortions, violent murders, sex-obsessed men, and various fetishes. He also saw comics as cathartic, a way for him to express his own frustration at the brutal work hours he and factory workers shared or to express the common Japanese person’s frustrations at how rapidly and brutally the nation was industrializing. What resulted was a career that began in the 1950s (officially, anyway), continued to his death in 2015, produced dozens of works and thousands of pages, and resulted in an entirely new genre.

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Page from Abandon the Old in Tokyo

Abandon the Old in Tokyo was the first Tatsumi book I read. It was quietly disturbing and contained stories about a man so beaten down by life that he feels he must actually live like a dog, which culminates in him doing the most degrading act he can think of – visiting a dog parlor; another man who is a recently failed children’s manga artist and, as he tries to figure out what to do next, becomes more and more obsessed with the lewd graffiti in public restrooms; and of another man who lives with his old, neglectful mother and must care for her as she ages while another younger, attractive woman pressures him into marrying her, as well as several other stories. Tatsumi’s male protagonists almost always look identical and rarely, if ever, speak. They simply allow the world to work around them, buffering them this way and that until they can’t take it any longer. Instead, he allows the world around them to speak, filling his panels with the sounds of vast crowds shuffling, trains rattling by, and machines endlessly working. This isolates his protagonists even further, making the reader feel detached from them – an echo of how they feel towards the world.

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Panel from The Push Man and Other Stories

Since my initial Tatsumi read, I’ve also checked out The Push Man and Other Stories, the only other Tatsumi book in my library system. It’s similarly disturbing, focusing on sex, relationships, and childbirth, though Tatsumi’s eye for narrative keeps the stories fresh and distinct. The only other way for me to find English copies of his work in through Amazon, which has a whopping six of them. I plan on buying every one of them.

Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s work represents what is and has always been possible in comics: telling compelling, realistic stories. He was a precursor to our American zines and Indie comics, which focused on drug use, sex, and the punk lifestyle, and if his work had been available in America during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, American comics would have been the better for it. Fortunately, through Adrian Tomine’s efforts, we can still benefit. We can still read a fraction of his incredible work, including his massive 855-page memoir A Drifting Life, which he had been working on for decades. We can change our perception of Japan and manga and step away from the assumption that it’s all Sailor Moon, Dragonball Z, and Gundam Wing. And, perhaps more importantly, we can begin to see the Japanese people and their 20th century history for what it really was: a time of rebuilding, of mounting public frustration, and of swift change directly resulting from our own American actions. As our movie studios keep purchasing production rights to manga or telling stories with Asian characters and then whitewashing everything, understanding the history and breadth of manga is especially important. So learn more, be more, be changed, and pick up a Tatsumi work.

* Featured image of Yoshihiro Tatsumi in 1956 taken from https://www.drawnandquarterly.com/author/yoshihiro-tatsumi

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