As often as I read graphic novels I often feel there is something lacking, the story perhaps, or maybe the characters, but I think it is the drawings themselves. They draw on traditions or images that once were pulp with little to say and the visual connection between the two weakens the power of the story. I know I had that feeling reading Will Eisner’s Contract with God, another early work in the genre. Tatsumi certainly has moments of visual power as you can see in the first story Hell, which takes place right after the bombing of Hiroshima. His drawings of the city leave a stark power that in later stories seems to more related to romance conics with their simple rendering of faces and expressions that become stand ins for complicated emotions that are difficult to express in 20 word bubbles.
Thematically, though, Tatsumi’s interest range from the complexities of the post war to frustration of everyday loneliness. Taken as a whole it creates a Japan that is not quite the miracle it seemed. Many Japanese have been left out: the veterans who survived the war but are scarred with old memories; old men who seem to be forgotten or lost in the new, hyper modern country; and the women who having ended up as hostesses, prostitutes, or attempted suicides, find themselves unable to break out of the roles thrust on them.
Of particular interest is Hell, a story that questions the sacredness of the victims. An army photographer takes a picture of a carbon shadow, one of those hideous legacies of the Hiroshima bombing. It looks like a son giving his mother a massage. The photographer sells the photo 10 years later and it quickly becomes a national symbol. But the photographer learns that it was really the son’s friend killing his mother for him. The son tries to blackmail him, but the photographer kills him so the image will keep its power. Unfortunately, they find the body of the son and the sweet narrative of a loving son looses its power. The photographer is haunted by the guilt of the crime from then on.
The story according to Tatsumi (in the interview in the back of the book) made a few people uncomfortable. However, it does question how a country creates hits symbols. Are they transitory as the story suggests? No one knew about the murder so the symbol of the mother and son still could have had the same power. It was not just the victim, but the context; or the projection of context, because the shadow only shows two figures. It is up to the reader to determine what they were doing. Tatsumi’s suggestion that not only ate the national symbols constructed, but they are constructions from one’s own perception gives Hell a weight its otherwise Telltale Heart like plot might weaken.
Hell, though, is thematically an exception to most of the stories, which are a mix of loneliness and sexual longing that show a troubled isolated society where sex is easily substituted for relationships. Its a melancholic almost nihilistic view and in Rash and Click Click Click it is taken to its furthest extreme when the protagonists contemplate suicide. Good-Bye, though, might best represent his view of the relations between men, women and families.
Mariko is a prostitute during the American occupation and her clients are all Americans. She has a steady American client who talks about marriage and love and seems to believe him. At the same time her father, a veteran who comes around for handouts, comes into the picture. He councils self control, but she has none and all he can do is slink off to bars and wonder how he ended up the way he has since it wasn’t his fault they lost the war. In the end the American goes home and she decides to get drunk. Her father comes around at the same time and tells her to sober up, but it only enrages her and she grabs him and forces him to receive her sexual motions until he ejaculates. Shamed he walks out of the room. She cries but says it is for the best. The last scenes are of him walking crowded street wondering when it will end, and of Mariko leading an American to her home.
The story creates a world where the traditional has been destroyed and what is left are the power relations: client to prostitute; father to daughter; shame to transgressions. Tatsumi si not only showing the legacy of war, but the movement away from the traditional pre-war Japan to the American influenced culture. At the same time, though, the power relationships have changed: American, youth, tradition, all in that order. While Tatsumi uses prostitutes as his symbol for this a little too often, it illustrates this dynamic quite well, much like Suzuki’s Gates of Flesh.