In the latter decades of the twentieth century, Japanese manga became increasingly popular with a Western audience. Interest in manga stretches as far back as the 1970s in many European countries, France principal amongst them, while the foundation for its American success was the growing popularity of anime a decade or so later, when television series including Dragon Ball (1986-9) and films such as Akira (1988) began to gain cult followings. (The distinction between manga and anime is analogous to that between comic and animation.) While contemporary manga culture continues to rise, however, early manga has not been afforded the same attention, either critically or commercially. Many artists that played a crucial role in the early development of the medium have been pushed aside and forgotten about, as more recent artists take centre stage.
One of these masters is Yoshihiro Tatsumi, who focused not on large-scale works but on short stories, a format now fairly uncommon amongst manga artists. Good-bye is his third collection, published in its original Japanese in 1972, but only recently translated into English. Tatsumi’s tales are decidedly dark, full of seedy characters and questionable morals. His protagonists are rarely honourable men (and they are, overwhelmingly, male); they are ageing perverts, disillusioned husbands, and grubby opportunists.
Many will, understandably, grimace at Tatsumi’s depictions of macho aggression and discontent, but it is through this pervasive dissatisfaction that he examines his nation’s socio-political issues. The post-World-War-II period in Japan is broadly referred to as sengo, a time in which black markets thrived, poverty was rife, and the working class were the subject of much exploitation. Japan was in many senses caught between ages, not yet the technological titan that it would become by the close of the century. The rapid growth of the sixties and seventies brought economic optimism, but also great social unrest.
Tatsumi’s works are frequently preoccupied with events and locations that sit at the forefront of Japan’s collective memory. The opening story of the collection, ‘Hell’, revolves around the long-felt aftermath of Hiroshima, and is a sceptical account of the media’s manipulation of Japan’s national grieving. A silhouetted photograph of a son lovingly massaging his elderly mother’s shoulders is embraced by mourners, becoming a cultural phenomenon and making the photojournalist-protagonist something of a hero. In typical Tatsumi fashion, though, a darker truth lurks beneath the surface, one that causes the protagonist to weigh up his moral virtues against national sentiment and his own newfound fame.
Japanese architecture and landmarks are given great prominence, though their presence can rarely be interpreted positively. Sometimes they appear fleetingly without comment, acting as a cultural indicator; the Tsutenkaku Tower, for example, is used as an emblem of homelessness. Elsewhere, they become actively implicated in characters’ actions. Two pivotal scenes in the story ‘Just a Man’ take place at the Yasukuni Shrine, a site upon which Japanese nostalgic nationalism centres. In the first of the two scenes, one of the shrine’s cannons symbolises virility, an idealised recollection of the war prompting the story’s elderly protagonist to feel full of youthful vigour. In the latter scene, this feeling is replaced with a sense of helpless impotency. The cannon accordingly becomes a site not of celebration, but degradation.
Such personifications of Japan are often rendered explicitly: ‘Just a Man’ opens with the ‘ceaseless honking of car horns,’ as Tokyo is described as ‘a decrepit old man’. This pessimistic, fatalistic vein runs deep through Good-bye, and it may prove too relentless for some. Beyond the grim exterior, though, the collection is the work of a man willing his nation to renew, to acknowledge its past while endeavouring to alleviate the sociocultural anxieties of its present.
‘Good-bye’ is translated by Yuki Oniki, and published by Drawn and Quarterly.