LOS ANGELES — Presented a copy of the latest English-language collection of his work, Yoshihiro Tatsumi turns it over in his hands and says, “This looks too beautiful to be a comic book.”
Designed by acclaimed American cartoonist Adrian Tomine, “Abandon the Old in Tokyo” indeed is handsome. A weighty hardback with a black cloth spine, it must mark quite a contrast with the cheap paperbacks and weeklies in which the anthology’s comics first appeared.
The stories, dating from 1970, all center on simply drawn characters navigating a claustrophobic world heavy with ink and carefully chosen detail. Sparse of dialogue, they turn on images of human degradation, quiet despair and outrageous violence carefully arranged to cinematic — even symphonic — effect. The underlying beat is that of escapist fantasy pounding its head against hard reality. This seems quintessential of Tatsumi’s brand of gekiga.
Frustrated by the limitations of the rental comics industry in which he got his professional start, Tatsumi pioneered the gekiga genre in the late ’50s and early ’60s with like-minded colleagues who no longer wished to cater to young children. Rather than simply use “gekiga” as a banner to legitimize adult content and realism in manga, however, they developed a whole new aesthetic.
Structural integrity was one of the pioneers’ primary concerns. They experimented with how best to blend images with the text; how a closeup might express the interiority of a character; how to synchronize a story’s action with the pace of the reader’s gaze as it covered the page. Leaving those and other issues unaddressed risked producing work as anemic as kids’ samurai comics in which no blood was ever shed, Tatsumi and his colleagues agreed.
What they accomplished was revolutionary. Like nothing before it, the gekiga perspective placed even cartoonish characters firmly in the real world. And nothing in gekiga’s wake was “too anything” to be a comic book.
Now in his 70s, Tatsumi is finally getting the recognition in the West he deserves. Largely responsible for this is Tomine, the creator of “Optic Nerve” and one of the few U.S. comics artists to earn critical praise and commercial work without sacrificing geek credibility. An early champion of Tatsumi’s, Tomine is now his editor for a three-volume series of English anthologies being published by Drawn & Quarterly; “Abandon the Old” is the second. On their way to the San Diego Comic-Con last July, where Tatsumi was a special guest, the two artists stopped in Los Angeles, where Tatsumi talked with The Japan Times, Tomine at his side.
How did you get your start in comics?
First, it was a matter of necessity. I needed to make money and that was one way I could do it. I got my start by publishing single- and four-panel comics in the school newspaper; I was the first student at my [junior high] school to draw comics.
Presumably those early comics were quite different from your later work . . .
Of course, they were thematically very different. They were very childish stories — about school events, sports day, competitions to see who could eat the most bread, stories where the punch line would be somebody falling, that sort of thing. That was funny for kids, though. And the fact that I could draw something and other students would find it entertaining was very exciting to me.
How did you come about professional work?
Discovering Osamu Tezuka’s comics in junior high school was really formative for me. Seeing that you could really focus on narrative helped me move to the paperback comic-book format. [Tezuka's best-selling "Shin Takarajima," which is considered to be the prototype of all modern, narrative-based manga, was published, in 1947, when Tatsumi was roughly 12.]
Tezuka also started out in the rental comics industry. The rental genre targeted grade-school kids. And the comic books would always be themed, by baseball, judo or detective stories. I was interested in inserting some sense of reality into my work, but in a way that went against targeting grade-schoolers. For example, if there was a murder in a detective story, I would want there to be blood; that only makes sense. But you couldn’t really do that. The genre was pretty confining. And especially at that time, because rental comics were already framed as an evil influence on children.
Outside of comics, have you explored writing in any other medium?
No. Literature seemed too difficult to attempt. Comics were very close to me and came much easier to me. They also seemed like a much more direct form of communication. With comics, I could draw it and write it and the reader could understand it right away. That appealed to me.
Still, much is made of the literary quality of your comics. Has literature been a big influence in your work?
When I was in high school, I started reading this collection of the world’s greatest literature and I came in contact with Tolstoy, whose work was really interesting and revelatory. I hadn’t read any contemporary Japanese writers, so I was shocked to see that Tolstoy would focus on the characters’ interior goings-on.
Around this time, I found out that Osamu Tezuka lived very nearby — only about 15 minutes away by train — so I started taking my comic strips to him to critique. He told me there weren’t going to be many places to publish single- and four-panel comics in the future, so I should really focus on longer works. And that’s why I started to shift my focus in the direction [of longer narratives].
Did you have a personal relationship with Tezuka?
Tezuka was very much a mentor to me. But even though I really enjoyed his work, I didn’t think I could create work like his. He was making comics for children, while my colleagues and I were interested in writing comics from our own perspective. We wanted to write comic books for adults in which we could express things more graphically; I incorporated a lot more violence. Part of that was influenced by the newspaper stories I would read. I would have an emotional reaction of some kind and want to express that in my comics.
Critics focus on the gritty realism of your work, which contrasts with the American superhero comics that were popular in Japan. Your protagonists are often wide-eyed anti-heroes who silently endure grave indignity until one day they explode into acts of extreme violence. This dramatic transformation of the blue-collar everyman seems diametrically opposed to that of, for example, Superman . . .
What I’m expressing in those comics is basically what my emotions were at the time. To me, a comic artist is a laborer. There’s no difference. And that’s why I identify with the workers in my stories. Especially in Japan, a comic artist has to be physically very strong because he’s on a tight publishing schedule and there are so many pages he must produce. It was quite normal for me to stay up three days straight to meet deadlines, so I completely identified with the laborer. And I think there’s an equivalent emotion shared by laborers and cartoonists — that sudden burst of anger, that feeling of “Things cannot go on like this!” or “If things go on like this, I’m going to explode!”
So it was cathartic?
Yes, it was cathartic. In a way, in these comics I am confessing something that I couldn’t tell anyone else. But perhaps for readers, it may have been unbearable to have that thrust upon them . . .
In the American press, you are often called the “grandfather of Japanese alternative manga.” How would you describe your place in the world of comics?
What I aimed to do was increase the age of the readership of comics. It wasn’t that I was trying to create anything literary, but I did want to create an older audience. I didn’t do that single-handedly, but I did succeed to a certain level. And, again, part of that was accomplished out of necessity. There was an incommensurable difference between what I wanted to express and what you could express in children’s comics.
But if I’m the “grandfather of alternative comics,” then Adrian [Tomine] is my grandson and I’m really looking forward to seeing the level that he and his generation will take comics to next. The time for the artists of my generation has passed.