ABANDON THE OLD IN TOKYO reviewed by The SF Examiner

“Review: Abandon the Old Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi” / The Examiner / James Defebaugh / May 1, 2009

Yoshihiro Tatsumi is often credited as the creator of the term gekiga (meaning “dramatic pictures,”) a Japanese, alternative comic genre Yoshihiro was very quick to distance from its precursor, mainstream manga (a term which translates to “irresponsible pictures.”) This terminological division is often compared to that of graphic novels and comic books, in both cases with the former being classically associated with heavier, more adult content and the latter with light, often sci-fi or fantasy children’s material. After having finished a recently translated edition of Abandon the Old Tokyo, a collection of eight short stories Tatsumi wrote during his prime, I can see why Yoshihiro felt the need to make such a distinction when describing his work—Tatsumi’s writing is definitely not for children or the faint of heart.

Though a quick read, Abandon the Old Tokyo is most certainly not a light one. Its stories provide an unflinchingly honest expose on the private lives of ordinary, working-class men living in the hustle and bustle of Japan’s thriving metropolis that will more often than not leave the reader disquieted, contemplative, morally troubled and a little haunted. Tatsumi’s characters abandon their loved ones, commit unspeakable acts, lose their sense of humanity and spend the rest of their lives mourning it. Though the actions of these lost souls may sometimes seem completely incomprehensible, their provocations and ramifications are often eerily familiar. This makes these stories feel all the more tragically profound and resonant as one watches the personal lives of these painstakingly ordinary, deeply flawed individuals unravel quietly and effortlessly.

One interesting facet of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s characters is his recurring use of visual archetypes. Many of the differently named and circumstanced protagonists, for instance, look more or less the same. There is also a recurring young, beautiful, round-haired female type who appears in many of these stories. While some readers may be willing to dismiss this as artistic laziness, it’s very obvious from Tatsumi’s drawings as a whole that there’s nothing lazy about them. For this reason, I like to believe that Tatsumi’s character types are a purposeful motif in his work which represent not just an average man stuck in differing unusual, unfortunate situations, but rather the average man reacting to the injustices of his surroundings—the hardships and prejudices of his city, his culture, his world.

As the gekiga pioneer, Tatsumi not only influenced an entire generation of alternative manga writers and readers, but even had a profound impact on the mainstream. Concurrent mainstream manga industry titan Osama Tezuka (who you may remember I wrote of as an influence on Scott McCloud’s Zot! a few weeks ago) even adopted many elements of gekiga into his own work, most notably Adolfand Phoenix. Today, thanks to Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s work and influence, that era is often hailed as a golden age of manga. So do yourself a favor, and begin at its source.

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