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Manga: Gekiga capture the underbelly of ’70s Japan

by Paul Mccarthy

Special To The Japan Times

“I don’t know much about manga but I know what I like” could well be the title of this review. Despite the urgings of enthusiastic friends ever since the 1970s, I sedulously avoided reading works in this genre. Occasional glimpses of the films of anime giant Miyazaki Hayao made me think, “Splendid — They’re playing songs of love, but not for me …” Great, then, was my amazement when I came across this English version of fugitive gekiga — the term that Yoshihiro Tatsumi coined in the 1950s to distinguish his works from more usual manga.

Midnight Fishermen: Gekiga of the 1970s, by Yoshihiro Tatsumi (translated by Mariko Usuba Owen and Masato Yamamoto), Landmark Books

Manga had been, and to a degree still are, aimed at children, while Tatsumi’s works are aimed at young adults and above. Manga are often comic in intent; the humor in Tatsumi’s gekiga is of the paint-it-black variety. Manga are for entertainment; Tatsumi aims to make his readers feel, think and squirm a good deal.

“Midnight Fishermen: Gekiga of the 1970s” consists of nine stories created in the early 1970s, and hitherto unavailable in English. They depict a Japan that has emerged from Occupation and is embarked on what came to be known as the economic miracle. But Tatsumi’s characters are not part of such a miracle play. They are almost always young, poor, working- or lower-middle class.

They live in tiny apartments without heating or air-conditioning, ride packed trains or buses to and from sites of work or amusement and are caught in no-prestige, low-paying, dead-end jobs — if they have work at all. They struggle with a sense of purposelessness, from which they try to escape through drinking, sex, gambling or fantasies of somehow “making it.”

The title story “Midnight Fishermen” centers on two young men, one of whom is a hustler who sleeps with women of a certain age for money. We see him encountering likely customers in the crowded streets (“I see my perfect target. Gotta go.”), having sex in a love hotel, and then quarreling with the customer over his fee. (“Give me the money you promised, the money for sleeping with you.” / “Promised? You’ve gotta be kidding. You enjoyed yourself too! … I’m not that desperate to have to pay for sex.” / “You slut!”). He goes back to his dreary apartment and sees his roommate, a grifter who deliberately gets hit by cars so he can extort money from the drivers, who are eager to avoid the police and publicity. His dream is to get out of Tokyo (“garbage sucking up to garbage … that’s what this city is about”) and start a new, clean life in rural Hokkaido. Having decided he has made enough money as a grifter to realize this dream, he goes out for a walk with his hustler-friend and is struck down by a car, a hit-and-run that leaves him dead in the road. His friend runs screaming through the night streets near the East Exit of Shinjuku Station. (The specificity of Tokyo references is one of the delights of Tatsumi’s art — if you knew Tokyo in the 1960s and ’70s, it will bring it back to you).

Other stories feature businessmen who gamble with the lives of their wives and children (“Welcome Home Daddy”); strip-house voyeurs sincerely mourning the arrest of Sayuri for nightly “giving her all” to her lonely fans (“My Boobs”); an ill-matched couple, he over the moon at having bought a plot of land in the country, she depressed by all the rural “dirt,” which reminds her of her miserable childhood (“Run with the Midnight Train”).

Every story reflects a different aspect of the shabby side of Japanese life in the 1970s; but always with cool, not sentimental, sympathy for the characters’ plight, and often with O. Henry-like surprise endings, and a bleak, ironic humor.

“The Woman’s Palace,” for example, begins with the scene of a robotic maid about to enter the gate of a grand Japanese residence, with elaborate garden and purely traditional interior. It houses a 300-year-old woman who is being kept alive artificially by her doctor, though she longs for a natural death. The question of the “right to die” is being posed by Tatsumi here, as is the problem of the relation between the human and the robotic/artificial.

The final panel in the story shows a bird’s-eye view of the residence — an island of nature and tradition in a sea of surrealistic ultra-modern structures. Not only the woman but her residence as well is being artificially preserved.

Tatsumi’s drawings are in black, white and have a kind of lyric beauty to them, intentionally simple in design and execution. And the translated texts here are in lively, colloquial English. All in all, this collection of gekiga (“dramatic pictures,” as Lim Cheng Tju translates this key term in his Introduction) will certainly appeal to those who dislike more conventional kawaii (cute) manga — and probably to regular manga fans, too.

In 2011, the well-known Singapore director Eric Khoo made an anime film based on other gekiga of the same period and on a later, autobiographical work by Tatsumi. Plans are being made for its distribution at cinemas in Japan, and for a DVD version to be made available here. The contents of the film “Tatsumi” and of the book under review are completely different, but both represent the quintessential Tatsumi gekiga.

Midnight Fisherman can be bought online at www.noqstore.asia/product/Manga-Midnight-Fisherman/9789814189385/.