Manga Legend Yoshihiro Tatsumi Interviewed by Adrian Tomine

Graphic novelist Adrian Tomine interviewed Manga legend Yoshihiro Tatsumi at the PEN World Voices festival. Tatsumi wrote some of the first serious Manga, in other words, Manga that isn’t about superheros and samurais, but real people and events. Several of his books are available in English and I reviewed Good-bye a couple years ago.

Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater – A Review

Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater
Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater

Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater is a beautiful book about the art of Manga Kamishibai, a precursor to manga, and a phenomenon that lasted for only about 30 years in Japan before succumbing to the powers of television. Manga Kamishibai is the art of story telling using a series of pre-drawn comic panels of about 12 x 12 inches to entertain and later educate. The Kamishibai men would set up in a park or public space in Tokyo or other big city and entice the local children to come see the show. They would sell the kids candy, which is how they made their money, and then would narrate the adventure described on the cards. The men would use different voices and act out the stories, keeping the children entertained with a hybrid of theater and comics. It was a uniquely Japanese phenomenon that disappeared with the coming of TV and after school study sessions that left children with little free time.

The art runs the gamut from western movie inspired work, to more traditionally Japanese styles. However, they all have a comic sensibility with broad strokes instead of fine detail which made it easier for the audience to see the drawings. The stories were a mix of super heros, such as the Golden Bat who looks more like Superman with a skull for a head, and samurai tales. The stories will last about 20-40 stills and each week, and like the Saturday serials in the US the stories would change rapidly to insure the kids would continue to come. At its height before the WWII, there  were 100’s of Kamishibai men and near 40 studios producing the slides.

The book also has a chapter on Kamishibai during WWII when it was converted into propaganda. The charactures of the evil Americans is somewhat funny. They all look like Alex Guiness in Bridge on the River Kwai. The focus of the propaganda was to tell the Japanese that the Americans were brutal savages who took no prisoners. At the beginning of the war, the Kamishibai told of Japan’s great victories, but as the war began to go badly the Kamishibai switched to an educational focus and explained how to fight fires and other civil defense matters, most of which were useless against fire bombing. Unfortunately, during the fire bombing many of the Kamishibai publishers were destroyed along with the art work. After the war, the US used the Kamishibai men to spread the new changes that were coming to Japan.

Eric Nash’s text makes for interesting reading and Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater is more than just a pictures of comics, but a cultural history of a little know element of Japanese culture.

Black Jack Vol 1 – A Review

I continue to read graphic novels because I think I’ll find some gold in them, and occasionally I do as with the work of Joe Sacco. Lately I’ve been trying Manga, and except for the work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi in Good Bye I have been disappointed. Black Jack, Vol. 1was not an exception. Although Osamu Tezuka is a pioneer and master of the form, I found his work, or perhaps it is just the form, lacking much depth.For those who don’t know, Black Jack is a mysterious doctor who doesn’t have a license but is the greatest doctor on earth and can save patients in complicated surgeries all by himself. While the concept itself is not bad, in execution the mysterious doctor flies in for the life saving surgery just at the right moment not only to save a life, but to give someone his due. The stories are formulaic: someone is ill or injured; they deny they need help or denied help; Black Jack shows up and offers to save the ill person and against everyone’s wishes he succeeds to everyone’s amazement. Black Jack pretends to be a selfish man, but in reality he has a heart of gold. While Black Jack does play with themes of health and the power of science, the stories are not particullarly long lasting and are emphemoral like so much pulp. I hold out hope that Manga will truely be interesting, and will in the words of Yani Mentzas will “stay within the framework [of Manga]to analyze and foreground its themes, especially the controlling one, that which exceeds man.”

Manga, Genre and Osamu Tezuka in Words Without Borders

Yani Mentzas makes some interesting points about how one should view the work of Manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka, and how in general the graphic novel should be approached when trying to make it more serious.

Narrative comics can mature in two diverging ways: either by jettisoning the juvenile framework in favor of standards borrowed from realism, or by staying within the framework to analyze and foreground its themes, especially the controlling one, “that which exceeds man.” My personal preference is against the former path, which leads to comics that give an impression of wanting to be art, cinema, or literature rather than comics and that indeed seem only the more shame-faced the better they are. I believe the latter is the royal road of intelligent comics in that it sees the merits of cartooning’s openness to caricature, acceptance of absurdity, and unflagging curiosity about that which exceeds man.

I’m not sure I agree completely but he does have a point. However, I think there is a mistake in equating the medium, pictures and words, with the genre, superhero or fantastic stories. Having tried to read Charles Burns’ Black Hole, a richly drawn work, I couldn’t stand the fantasy element. On the other hand, Shortcomings a fine graphic novel is so chatty perhaps it would have been better as a play.

He does make an interesting point about the transition to or the search for more serious work. A market does need to develop for everything:

What’s more striking in fact is the comparable paucity of these elements in the early oeuvre of the master who’d eventually come to employ them so deftly. We could attribute this difference to the fact that aging tends to inculcate a greater interest in spirituality, but Tezuka’s mature phase began when he was in his forties, which is hardly old. The better answer has to do with intended readership; to simplify a little but not much, in his early period before 1970 Tezuka wrote for children, while he had grownups in mind after the seventies due to an immense demographic shift in manga buying.

Scenes from Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s From A Drifting Life

Words Without Borders has a short section from the Manga master Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s new book From A Drifting Life, which is forthcoming from Drawn and Quarterly. As usual, Tatsumi mixes a bit of manga history with everyday life in Japan after the war. Even if you don’t read graphic novels, it is interesting.


Yoshihiro Tatsumi

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.