Coming to Terms with Tatsumi and Manga

Administrator | Home | Tuesday, May 12th, 2009


60 million people can’t be nerds. If they are, they’ve probably come to terms with it.

The Japanese story form manga uses extended plotlines and a distinct pictorial style. It falls somewhere in between a graphic novel and a comic book. Widely read in Japan, where it is a $4 billion industry, manga attracts a slightly more esoteric crowd in the U.S. Here such readers may be considered nerds. There, they are cool. But increased domestic sales suggest that manga may no longer be the stuff stashed in freshman lockers.

Manga depicts stories of everything from shogunate sword fights to the lives of ordinary salarymen. A typical issue may contain several shorter storylines and be between 200-400 pages in length. Most of the drawings are in black and white.

Tatsumi on Stage

PEN World Voices managed to secure a conversation with one of manga’s luminaries, the Japanase artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Tatsumi has just released a new book, A Drifting Life (Drawn & Quarterly), a memoir of some 800 pages that chronicles his development as a writer. He was joined by his American heir apparent Adrian Tomine, who has evolved Tatsumi’s style to develop his own unique work. Tatsumi’s effusive publicist translated.

What are you talking about?

For the outsider, this was not a very inviting conversation. Tomine was too familiar with Tatsumi’s work and overly deferential. The young author was in the presence of a pioneer of his craft and it showed. The questions were either very technical, relating to inking methods or the like, or Tatsumi avoided answering them. The one question which touched upon the political -– and made me cup my ear –- did not receive an answer and Tomine did not press him. In short, Tomine was evidently a really nice guy.

As best I could tell, Tatsumi had written political pieces. He coined the term for a new manga style called gekiga, which may or may not have been different from manga. He also wrote about ordinary people. The questions from the audience at NYU’s Cooper Union were even worse, from devout fans who quaked in his presence. Wasn’t this person just a man, I wondered?

On the sleuth…

Confused and disappointed, I badgered a few members of the audience after the event to get their opinion. They had both come to see Adrian Tomine and offered a few general thoughts about Tatsumi, mostly that he was very, very important. I then spoke to people who had lived in Japan and out of it. They knew a few distinctions – that gekiga was different from manga — and further impressed upon me Tatsumi’s importance. I sensed the beginning of a challenge. Here was a very, very important man who had somehow escaped me, and I refused to believe that it was because I was not nerdy enough. I did not wish to be outdone. So I stopped into the sanctuary of the obsessive, the comic store Forbidden Planet on Union Square. Tatsumi’s book was the first thing I saw on the shelves. Several copies.

After making some initial inquiries, I was directed to the resident expert, a young man in his early twenties.

“What is the difference between gekiga and manga?” I asked.

The guy looked at me out of the corner of his eye. Something about my question bored him. Also the world. He then offered me some considered background about Tatsumi, such that I knew I was in the presence of a master.

“I’m writing something for PEN,” I said, hoping to encourage him further.

This was not the right thing to say.

“Oh, that PEN thing. You should just buy the book.”

His tone was so disaffected that I felt I was wasting his time and his money. So I did what any self-respecting thirty-something would do in the face of Nietzsche-ridden angst. I bought the book.

“He signed mine,” the guy at the door said on the way out. “Drew me a picture, too.”

My copy of A Drifting Life has no picture in it. It was thirty dollars.

A Drifting Life

But it didn’t take me long to see why Tatsumi, and A Drifting Life in particular, is worth reading. Tatsumi has visually captured the evolution of an entire genre. His panels are pleasant to read and the story moves easily. Storytelling in comic form is not simple. Jeff Smith, the author of the seminal independent comic series Bone, has spoken about this challenge at length. Comics do not enjoy the 24 frame-per-second continuity of film, nor do they offer the clarity of paragraphs of prose. Each panel is a distinct snapshot of action and text that must link naturally in the mind of the reader. The drawings can take an immense amount of effort – A Drifting Life took ten years for Tatsumi to complete.

I Can See Clearly Now

Tastumi’s contribution, as best I can tell, is not just the entertainment value of his manga, but the celebration of ordinary life as worthy of manga. Dragons and shoguns do not need to be slayed. The anxiety of retirement for a salaryman can be enough for a manga, and this means adults can read manga as well as kids. It moved from the middle school hallway to the rush hour salaryman subway. Tatsumi also blended political themes with individual lives. He never developed what you could call a mainstream following, and wrote against the grain. He was – and is – an alternative or independent manga artist.

Tatsumi’s contribution was also stylistic. He used sharp, more realistic inking techniques instead of the cartoonish faces that characterized other mangas. His piece ‘Hell‘ in the PEN America Journal No.10 embodies this technique, bordering on a gritty noir aesthetic.

Tatsumi changed both the type of story and the way the story looked. This was gekiga.

A Drifting Life as History

A Drifting Life is also a pleasant read as an historical reference. Tatsumi regularly takes a step back and contextualizes his experiences: at this time, Japan had surrendered to the U.S.; here, American soldiers ran the streets; here, the economy was beginning to grow, and so on. There is a marked strain of criticism against the U.S. occupying force, although this is balanced by an appreciation for the U.S.’ help in revitalizing the economy. He speaks of his influences, such as Noboro Ooshiro and Osamu Tezuka. There is a lot more, but I haven’t finished it yet, and hope to offer a more complete review soon.

Gekiga by Hanging

I’ve been trying to replay Tomine and Tatsumi’s conversation after my newfound knowledge. It still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I’ve since read Tomine’s work Shortcomings (Drawn & Quarterly, 2009), about a torrid relationship between a young couple, and I liked it. Tomine manages to capture the tension of awkward situations with humor, and Tatsumi’s influence is clear. And I’ve come to agree that Tatsumi’s work is very, very good. Nerddom is once again coursing through my veins.

Now I’ll leave you with Tatsumi’s own words about defining his work, just in case you remain dissatisfied with my explanation:

“If you talk too much about gekiga or try to define it, it is like hanging ourselves.”

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