YOSHIHIRO TATSUMI featured in Filter Magazine

“An Inconvenient Life The comics of Yoshihiro Tatsumi” / Filter Magazine / Eric Almendral / April 18, 2006

You’re forgiven, gaijin, for thinking of Japan as a wonderland of giant robots, supernaturally lovestruck teens, cybernetic samurais and sci-fi epics where children routinely save the world using nothing but a pack of trading cards. The tsunami of J-pop culture that’s been crashing onto American shores for the past decade is heavily populated with these mainstays, reinforcing stereotypes of a Hello Kitty-adoring technophiliac Land of the Rising Sun. But the rapid modernization and economic expansion after World War II—back when the U.S. was adept at rebuilding the nations of its defeated enemies—that was the genesis of present-day pop-obsessed Japan also gave birth to a counter-cultural dissent among the manga.

Comics creator Yoshihiro Tatsumi found himself dissatisfied with cheery, cartoon-like characters (i.e. the Disney-influenced Astro Boy) that dominated manga in the late ’60s. “Everyone was drunk with money,” he says (via translator) of that period. “The process of making the wealthy more comfortable led to a powerless underclass who could not stand up for themselves and so they lived their lives in quiet servitude. I see only humanity in those at the dead ends of society.” Tatsumi reacted by publishing gekiga: gritty, realistic stories about disenfranchised members of the working class consumed by a seething anger they’re unable to suppress.

Tatsumi derives his narratives from the depravity that comes with sudden social and sexual freedom: promiscuity, adultery, betrayal, fetishism, misogyny. Frustrated by their own powerlessness, his characters often violently explode, self-destruct or languish in their shame. He renders his almost interchangeable antiheroes in simple ink lines; they’re generic stand-ins for the Japanese “everyman” trying to defy inevitable change. The tales reverberate with their author’s anxieties: “The luxurious, convenient life in urban society is somehow wrong.”

Gekiga predates the oft-abused “graphic novel” label slapped onto serious adult comics since the publication of Maus, but it shares a literary approach with many contemporary ink-slingers such as Seth, Chester Brown, and Chris Ware. Tatsumi’s work—mostly self-published and commercially unsuccessful in his homeland—was largely unrecognized in the English-speaking world until last year. Optic Nerve creator and hipster fave Adrian Tomine (who had been lucky enough to discover a rare translated collection of Tatsumi’s work in the ’80s) sought out Tatsumi and is currently editing a chronological series of anthologies which began with last year’s The Push Man and Other Stories and continues with Abandon the Old in Tokyo. The first volume won instant praise from book critics and comics elites such as Love & Rockets creators Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez.

“I have no awareness of that,” Tatsumi says about his newfound fans. “I’m still poor and though I hear manga is booming, I haven’t noticed. I only wish I’d had the recognition 30 years ago so I could have published as many stories as I’d liked.”
Tatsumi expresses unfamiliarity with the work of most of his American peers but sees a natural kinship with Tomine’s comics. “I feel great anger and sorrow in the quiet actions of his characters,” he says. “It’s very close to what I hoped to accomplish with gekiga.”

The post-war boom is more history than memory for most Japanese, but the 71-year-old Tatsumi continues to produce stories with themes similar to his earlier works. “Even with this computer generation it hasn’t changed a bit,” he says. But he laments mellowing with age. “I’ve always thought I’d have the same passion for comics I did 50 years ago, but the power of the work has diminished,” he remarks, noting the softening of spirit that comes with marriage, children and the slowing of the body. “It’s quite a sad thing.”

Abandon the Old in Tokyo is available in September from Drawn & Quarterly. Many thanks to Aya Masuda for her translation services.

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