Publisher's Weekly Comics Week interviews YOSHIHIRO TATSUMI

“Tatsumi's Long Journey” / Publisher's Weekly / Kai-Ming Cha / August 1, 2006

Yoshihiro Tatsumi is a seminal figure in the history of manga who is finally enjoying some fame worldwide. The father of "gekiga," the genre of Japanese comics that deals with mature themes, Tatsumi's short stories of sewer workers, window washers and cross-dressing salarymen reflect the frustration of an underclass set against the backdrop of a rapidly modernizing Japan. With a little help from Drawn & Quarterly and a big push from cartoonist Adrian Tomine, Tatsumi's collection The Pushman and Other Stories (already in its second printing) catapulted him into the attention of the American market. This past spring, Tatsumi's work graced the cover and interior of The Paris Review. His second book, Abandon the Old in Tokyo, had record sales at this year's San Diego Comic-con, where Tatsumi made his first American appearance and he and Tomine held a joint signing.

Currently, Tatsumi is working on an 800-page autobiographical graphic novel, A Drifting Life in Gekiga, and has almost 765 pages finished. PWCW sat down with Tatsumi and his translator at this year's San Diego Comic-Con to talk about the birth of manga, the birth of a new genre and the birth of an industry that often required 50 pages a night from its creators.

PW Comics Week: What was the manga industry like in Japan when you first started out?

Yoshihiro Tatsumi: When I started—this was about 1950, I was 15—there was a shortage of paper and few publications were being put out; some magazines, some paperback books, maybe a dozen annually. The books were thin paperbacks. The comics then were targeting children and had slapstick humor. So even with the monthly magazine for kids, only a small portion was dedicated to comics. The rest were serial novels or text-based works. The comics themselves were quite short. An eight-page story was considered a long piece.

PWCW: Was this in Tokyo?

YT: I'm based in Tokyo now, but I was born in Osaka. Osaka had their own distinct publishing industry and their own distribution system based on rental bookstores. [Rental comic shops] originated in Kobe in the immediate postwar period.

PWCW: Like today's manga kissas [cafes where customers pay an hourly fee to read as many as comics they want]?

YT: Similar in a way, but they didn't serve tea. They looked like bookstores. There was a fee for renting them and reading them at home. There was a different fee for reading in the store—half the price for taking them home. There were about 30,000 rental shops nationwide in Japan.

Tezuka Osamu also started in the rental comics scene. [Tezuka is called the godfather of manga, and is credited with applying the now trademark cinematic style to Japanese comics. His works include Astro Boy, Buddha and the girl's comic Princess Knight. His Ode to Kirihito is forthcoming from Vertical Books.] He was still in medical school when he started creating in this field. One of his stories sold 300,000 copies. That exceeded the [copies available at the] rental stores. It was the first time something extended beyond the rental system and reached retail stores.

PWCW: Was Tezuka a mentor to you?

YT: When I was in junior high, I was sending comics work to various magazines and newspapers. One newspaper that looked at my work was interested in running a series, a "genius comics kid" series. They asked me to come in to the office. There was a journalist there and I told him that I was a huge fan of Tezuka's. Tezuka was like a god for me. He created a world of comics that didn't exist before. That journalist knew Tezuka and offered to introduce me to him. That's how I met Tezuka.

When I met Tezuka, I found out that he was my neighbor. He lived about 15 minutes from my home by train. I would frequently go to [his] house and show him what I was working on and get feedback from him.

From that point on, I was greatly influenced by Tezuka's work. Prior to that I was working in single- and four-panel format. After meeting Tezuka, I started working on longer stories. Tezuka actually recommended that I move on to the longer format. Eventually, Tezuka became more known in Tokyo. He was doing more series so he moved to Tokyo. When he left, I had no one to show my work to, so I started bringing my work to the rental shops in Osaka. That really marked my transition to working in the rental comic book field. I was 19 years old.

PWCW: What kind of work did your parents do?

YT: Originally they were in the laundry business. We were living in Tenogi, during the war. The air raids got really bad so we moved to a rural area. (I was in the third grade around then.) Many families moved to a rural area as a group so I was in a temporary school. After the war, my parents did a lot of different jobs. They mainly did sales, going to houses and taking orders and then delivering them.

From the time I was in eighth or ninth grade, I had to make my own way. I had to pay my own tuition and transportation. I was already working professionally out of financial necessity. I was sending out comics to different magazines and papers, winning cash prizes that were awarded for publication. The first rental book comics publication I did is something that I wrote in 11th grade.

PWCW: Did your financial obligations influence your outlook on life or your work?

YT: In Japan at the time, this wasn't a special experience. It was common. Many kids couldn't afford to go to school at all. A lot of kids were absent on the day that tuition was due. This was normal to me. It didn't feel like a burden. I could never afford an umbrella, so days that it rained, I wouldn't go to school. But that was completely normal.

PWCW: How did the rental publishing system work?

YT: The rental stores were separate businesses from the publishers, but the industry had its own distribution system. The stores had some influence over the content—what would be published. But because the publishers of the rental books were quite small operations, I did feel that I had a lot of freedom as to what I could publish. There were no editorial meetings, so I could bring in what ever I wanted and they'd pretty much say okay.

But the rental comics field was mainly targeted toward grade-school students. When you got to high school, you wouldn't read them anymore. Around the time when I was 20 years old, I [started wanting] to make comics that reflected my own interests. I wanted to create a more mature world than one for grade-school students. The work I wanted to create may have been too mature or inappropriate for children.

So, as I became a young man, I started to feel that what was required in comics at that point (humor) seemed frivolous or silly. I became more interested in creating works influenced by detective works and a more realistic world. Before I started making these more mature works, there would never have been a murder scene in comics. I started depicting murder scenes and adults committing murder and having no regrets afterward. [When these were published] there were organizations that began pressuring rental shops to censor [them]. They started policing the material, saying these books were a bad influence on children.

So the word "gekiga" was basically used as a solution for this problem. It was used to clarify that the work my colleagues and I were creating was not for children, and it should be categorized separately and put in a separate place in the rental shop.

PWCW: You coined the term "gekiga" and your work falls into this genre. What kind of "gekiga" work was there in the Japanese market before you began creating it?

YT: There was no "gekiga" prior to me or my colleagues. When I was publishing for the rental shops, I was working with Hinomaru paperbacks. They had a young president who understood me. He was in his 20s and like a brother figure. He was nice and understanding, but never paid me on time. At first, I'd get paid when I submitted my work, but then they switched to a specific payday, and I'd get paid in increments, not all at once. When I went to collect my [check], I would see other people working in the rental book industry, older men in their 30s who had moved on from being candy sellers and sign painters to working in rental comic books.

Out of that group of comics writers who would be there to get paid monthly, there were six or seven of us that became friends. We created a forum to talk about the future of comics, to critique each other's work and talk about Tezuka. There was no future in Osaka. We'd have to move to Tokyo to succeed. So both the comic artists and the publisher [at Hinomaru paperbacks] felt a strong urge to move to the Tokyo-based industry.

PWCW: Is that when you moved?

YT: Around that time, the Osaka publisher was so desperate to get some mainstream recognition, he decided to publish work by a Tokyo cartoonist—political four-panel cartoons. He took on this artist to gain recognition, so he printed many more copies of the comic than he would have for an Osaka artist. But all of the copies were returned, so the company went bankrupt. I knew we couldn't just go to Tokyo and start publishing, so we made a conscious decision to take the "gekiga" imprint, to take this whole movement to the Tokyo industry. In 1957, when I was 22, I moved to Tokyo.

PWCW: How did the Tokyo industry differ from that of Osaka? How many friends moved with you to Tokyo?

YT: Around this time paper became more abundant. Monthly magazines became weekly magazines. Children could afford to buy their own paperbacks. This, combined with the spread of television, destroyed the rental shop industry in a matter of a few years.

So the president of Hinomaru Publishing clearly had some foresight in trying to [hire an artist from Tokyo], but it was the wrong work and he hastened his company's demise. My colleagues and I wanted to follow this one publisher to Tokyo, but it was not possible since he went bankrupt. Most rental publishers went bankrupt.

We felt that "gekiga" was the most useful term to market ourselves. My friends and I thought of ourselves as seven samurais, which corresponded with Kurosawa's Seven Samurais. By the time we moved to Tokyo, it had been a few years since the "gekiga" movement started. At the time, "gekiga" had caused a stir. Almost all the comics publishers [in Tokyo] were putting out "gekiga" comics. So it worked to our advantage.

[The Tokyo publishers] knew about us. We were able to put out works without interference. We didn't have to do any apprenticeships. But about two years after moving to Tokyo, some of my colleagues returned to Osaka to take on different professions and some of them switched over to working in magazines for younger kids. Only four remained working in the "gekiga" style in Tokyo.

The publishing industry in Tokyo was bigger and more official. Our work was subjected to critiques. [Editors and publishers] would tell us to change our work. Those who took the critiques became successful. A lot of the work was for children's magazines. As for myself, I was caught in middle. I didn't become popular but I always had work. I was caught in this in-between place and sort of working and hoping that my magazine work would become popular. Looking back I still feel like I'm still caught in this in-between place.

PWCW: Why is that?

YT: I still feel as if my work doesn't sell that well—not that badly, either—but when I do these interviews, I wonder, why me?

PWCW: Many readers want to read stories that allow them to escape from reality. They enjoy the fantasy element/experience when reading a novel or a comic. What made you want to create stories that reflected the bleak, tragic and twisted facets of everyday life?

YT: In essence, the works were a continuation of my everyday life, my reality, especially the works published in the Drawn & Quarterly books. They're sort of a parallel to "shisosetsu", the "I" novel , a genre in Japan. [Shisosetsu novels use the first-person narrative to reveal the feelings of the protagonist and emphasize individuality.] Something like that. It was a reflection of my own feelings, being caught between success and work. I had a lot of drive to succeed but I was faced with disappointments.

I had a lot of frustration that I wanted to get out in my work, in a way. I wasn't thinking of my readers. In a way, I succumbed to the idea that my works couldn't be a big hit anyway so I might as well create the work that I wanted to create and express what I was feeling.

PWCW: There was a period in your life as a creator when you were producing 50 pages of work per day. What was driving you? I ask because there are stories of manga-ka [artists/writers] being holed up in their rooms working against deadline, with their editor making noodles for them so that they can eat.

YT: In terms of producing the 50 pages per day, it was a matter of necessity. If I didn't meet the deadline, the company would be in debt several hundred thousand yen. So I had no choice. I had four or five assistants working with me. The works from Drawn & Quarterly are works I produced myself. But the assistants varied in speed and skill level (some just drew the lines for the panels), so I had about three good assistants doing work.

The term for the situation you talk about is "sardine canned." That's when an editor is with you to make sure you are working toward the deadline and not sleeping. When I had to [produce] 50 pages a night, I would make them out of sequence. I wasn't thinking of them as 50 pages per day, but as increments. The first few would be color pages, then we would move to the end of the stories for the printer schedule, then the middle, and then it would be assembled. As soon as one section would be done, the editor would take it away, so when I was working on the middle of the story, it was very difficult.

PWCW: Were these short stories? Did you have thumbnail sketches or a script?

YT: I would already have a framework in place. I would have thumbnails of the panels sketched out. I never had the experience of the sardine can. Tezuka worked exclusively in the sardine can. Tezuka produced more pages per day than I did. I heard once, for a magazine, he made a 64-page insert in one day. So 50 pages is not that big of a deal. And even if I made 50 pages in a day, I still had to do 50 pages again the next day.

PWCW: Since you've met Adrian Tomine, how has your relationship changed? Do you think of yourself as a mentor to him?

YT: Well, Adrian says I influenced his work, but when I look at it, I don't think I influenced it. The great thing that Adrian does is he articulates the emotions of his characters, the interiors. Even though the emotions are not shown through the faces, they are [shown] in the story. As for myself, I'm very bad at drawing, unlike Adrian. I strive to create realistic stories but my drawings can never be that realistic. My drawings are still in the comics style. Adrian is an illustrator. His drawing has been perfected.

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