Comic books and graphic novels are treated, nowadays, with a level of respect that would have been unthinkable when they were purchased more often in drugstores than in bookstores. Indeed, it is no longer controversial to say that such works can be art, and that as such they are as worthy of our attention as film, music or literature.
This is not because comics are better now than they used to be; the quality has always been there. Publishers such as Canada’s Drawn & Quarterly, by resurrecting work produced in the bad old days when comics were dismissed as disposable pulp, have made this clear, most strikingly with the work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, the inventor of the sophisticated style of manga known as gekiga.
Tatsumi and his most adventurous contemporaries found a welcoming venue in the avant-garde magazine Garo. It is no surprise, therefore, that when Susumu Katsumata, a generation younger than Tatsumi, decided to forgo an academic career in nuclear physics to become a professional cartoonist, Garo was where he first marketed his work. His four-panel strips began appearing there in 1966 and were, according to editor Mitsuhiro Asakawa, “rather orthodox.” Though Katsumata did, Asakawa tells us, occasionally deviate from this orthodoxy, it was not, one suspects, until he began creating short stories such as the 10 collected in “Red Snow” that he found a form suited to his ambition.
With great sympathy and perception, but without rose-colored glasses, Katsumata here evokes his Tohoku childhood. Though simply drawn, the stories are never actually simple; each tale blossoms when reread, and each gives a vivid glimpse of the hard lives of the rural poor among whom Katsumata grew up.
In the first, “Mulberries,” we watch two country children, a boy and a girl, move through their days, the boy not having much luck selling the loaches he has gathered and the girl, during a break from her chores at a rustic hot spring, stuffing herself on mulberries with an avidity that suggests not greed but hunger. We watch as the boy continues to be a boy and as the girl, experiencing menarche, moves away from him and toward, it is hinted, a bleak adulthood in which she will be pressured to prostitute herself to guests at the hot spring. The boy, immersed in fantasies of himself as a stylish musician, does not grasp what is happening to the girl, but he is finally perceptive enough to notice her sadness, and that is where the story ends.
There is no action to speak of; the art does not draw attention to itself. In place of resolution, the story leaves us only with uncertainty about the children’s future, an uncertainty much truer than any resolution could have been, and much more conducive to keeping the story alive in our minds after we have turned the last page.
We are far from men-in-tights territory here, but Katsumata does not shy away from the fantastic. His fantasy is always integral to the harsh realism of his work in that it derives from the myths and legends native to the rural Japan about which he is writing.
Kappa, for example — which Katsumata describes in an interview as “a half human creature living in the water, much like a miscarried fetus . . . an amphibian” — surface in some of the tales. But even with these water sprites wandering through them, Katsumata’s stories are always firmly anchored in the mundane.
The protagonist of “Torajiro Kappa” is an entirely human boy with a very real problem: the man for whom he works beats his wife. The boy appeals for help to a kappa — consider the kappa an imaginary friend if you must — but though the kappa is nearly killed in his attempt to help the boy, he fails for reasons to do with mysteries the boy has yet to penetrate, and what is worse, the battered woman sides not with the kappa but with her tormentor.
In the wake of this defeat the kappa leaves the village; the story, we see, is as much about the end of childhood and its enchantment as about a duel between men and mythological creatures.
The prostitution looming over the young woman in “Mulberries,” the battering of a wife in “Torajiro Kappa”: Katsumata’s sympathy for the hard lot of these rural women is, along with sex and death, a recurring thread running through several of the tales collected in “Red Snow.” Although the cartoonlike simplicity with which Katsumata draws his characters, and his ever-present lightness of touch, can cause one to forget it, the world he gives us is no rural idyll. Rather, it is a rural reality that, thanks to Katsumata’s skillful rendering, is very much alive.