Yoshihiro Tatsumi looks much younger than his 73 years. Sprightly and self-deprecating, the trailblazing Japanese graphic novelist looked like a grown-up teenager in a newsboy cap, jeans, and T-shirt at a discussion for the PEN World Voices festival on writing about working people. The discussion “Modern Day Salarymen” was originally supposed to include Austrian author Kathrin Röggla, who wrote a documentary novel about working lives. But it was announced early on that she had come down with the flu (not that flu), and couldn’t make it.
Tatsumi seemed nonplussed at the change of plans. The graphic novelist has been writing comics since he was in the seventh grade, and is credited with starting the genre of gekiga, a darker and more-realistic form of manga. Manga translates roughly to “whimsical pictures.” Gekiga, which means “darker pictures,” departs from manga’s devotion to neat punchlines and happy endings, and instead explores the psychological worlds of its characters. Tatsumi’s work, long unavailable in English, has been brought to the U.S.’s attention by graphic novelist Adrian Tomine, a Tatsumi admirer.
Tatsumi’s eerie panels show human shadows permanently blasted into walls from the radiation, heaps of decomposing dead bodies, and a city brought to its knees by destruction.
David Haglund, the editor of PEN’s journal, showed slides from The Push Man and Other Stories, one of Tatsumi’s earlier works about the life of a man who pushes hordes of commuters into trains for a living. The stark, even depressing images suggest the obliteration of individuality in the crowd, but that’s not what Tatsumi—speaking through a translator—had to say about his earlier project.
“Anyway you look at it, this isn’t spectacular art,” he said, gazing up at the blown-up panels with a critical eye and getting a laugh out of the audience. Haglund quickly offered that the story was very compelling, but Tatsumi would have none of that. “I think it’s pretty matter of fact,” he said.
Tatsumi said the story was a metaphor for his own desire to push himself into college, something that was very difficult to do at the time—unless you were rich. “If I had gone to college, I would have been doing stuff like this,” he said, speaking of the push man’s unglamorous job. The cartoon also showed the push man engaging in a three-way sexual experience, to which Tatsumi laughed and explained that he had “major conflicts” with women when he wrote the comics in the late ‘60s.
Tatsumi’s interest in the working class in part stemmed from watching the country develop so rapidly after the war. “I was interested in what was happening at the most base levels of labor and work and it was those lives I wanted to depict,” he said. “That’s why I’ve been writing so much about them as opposed to salarymen or people with white-collar jobs.” But he added that he expresses his feelings through his characters, not any larger themes.
Tatsumi’s tackled many subjects that set him apart from the cheery manga crowd. In another strip, a photographer decides to sell a photo he took in the aftermath of the atomic bomb. Tatsumi’s eerie panels show human shadows permanently blasted into walls from the radiation, heaps of decomposing dead bodies, and a city brought to its knees by destruction. Tatsumi briefly addressed his own experience of living in Japan after the war.
“I try not to think about that period of the end of the war at all because I have distinct memories of the smell of death, corpses lying around where I lived,” he said. “I try not to think about those things.”
However, Tatsumi’s most recently translated work, the autobiographical, 10-years-in-the-making epic A Drifting Life, begins with the end of World War II. “I believe that real Japanese life only began after the war,” he said. “Up until then the people were slaves of the military or the emperors.”
Tatsumi seemed to view himself as happily irrelevant—saying he thinks the cultural moment for gekiga has passed, and that because he no longer receives big commissions anymore, he can work on the comics he wants to work on. But this is probably just more modesty—the cartoonist was recently awarded the prestigious Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize for A Drifting Life.
Liz Goodwin is an intern at The Daily Beast. Before arriving in New York, she wrote for The Tico Times and Fodor’s Travel Guides in Costa Rica.