By special to CC: Chris Randle
There were plenty of happenings to note at this year’s TCAF – the Doug Wright awards, Frank Santoro gracing my sketchbook with Jah Batman, the relentless growth of the Scott Pilgrim massive – but the most purely joyful was seeing a delighted Yoshihiro Tatsumi sit before fans lined up out through the door. “Great strip rescued from moldering obscurity” is a familiar comics story by now, yet too many of those cartoonists died amidst poverty or just indifference, unable to enjoy their own reclamation. Tatsumi can, and clearly does. Grim gutter chronicles like Good-Bye, A Drifting Life’s rueful social history: not the most intuitive candidates for new multiple-language readerships, but deserving ones.
I spoke to Mr. Tatsumi the day before TCAF began, on a high floor of a swanky hotel. He was meeting journalists all afternoon in their restaurant. It was a gorgeous day, summer’s first; Tatsumi’s wife spent most of our interview gazing down at the unbroken blue of Lake Ontario below. (They are a stylish and completely adorable couple.) We had this conversation as an ice cream sundae slowly liquefied around his spoon. Tatsumi laughed more than I expected, and sometimes he would stress a point by making violent gestures towards his chest, as if stabbing himself through the heart. Can the highlight of your festival precede the actual event?
(I owe a few people thanks and my gratitude for their help with this interview. To D&Q’s Peggy Burns, who arranged it, remaining unflappable even when a series of minor disasters made some fuckup writer late; to ace translator Jocelyn, who shadowed our words on the fly; and to Mr. Tatsumi, who gave me his time. Sheila Heti and Jeet Heer made separate assists during the long process of getting this thing published somewhere and I owe them both drinks.) — Chris Randle
Chris Randle: A Drifting Life is about the formation of gekiga, but I’m wondering how you would characterize the style of the book itself.
Yoshihiro Tatsumi: In Japan everything’s always read the opposite of here, so I think about the design as two pages, and if everything will be reversed I think about that before I design – of course [the individual panels] as well, but I want to have a balance to the whole thing. When it flips I’m uneasy about it, but there’s no way around that.
[The translator wonders if that was precisely what I wanted to ask about, and I clarify that I meant how Tatsumi would characterize the artistic style of A Drifting Life in comparison with the gekiga period it’s about.]
YT: When I was writing back at that time – I was really enthusiastic, I had a lot of passion when I was drawing gekiga. But now gekiga and manga are [the same thing], so even if you draw gekiga, it’s just called manga. Comparing my passion with that time… I was much more passionate then.
CR: I interviewed Adrian [Tomine] a week or so or ago, and he thought – to him the book has a “symphonic” quality, because it moves back and forth from the stylized sections about you and your collaborators to these photo-realistic depictions of Japanese history and pop culture at that time. And I’m just wondering if this structure was consciously planned out beforehand…
YT: There’s 48 [chapters] in total, so you think of those and then you go into detail and write them. I thought about 60 or 70 different sections, but the circumstances of the [Japanese] company that is publishing it, as a serial – they stopped it in the middle. There’s still 15 or 20 more stories. I guess you don’t realize that it was stopped halfway through…
CR: No, I had no idea.
YT: The last two or three chapters are really rushed-through. I was forced to end it there. In any case, I’m going to write the rest of it, so…
CR: One part that I thought was really interesting in the book was your mention of negative news coverage about what the young artists were drawing – the “vulgar manga.” Could you describe that in more detail?
YT: The parents were really up in arms about these bad books. Manga at that time was different than it is now. It was friendly manga, so little kids could read it too… On the page you have the same number of panels, the people move from left to right and they’re all the same size and it all looks the same on the page… There was no movement or anything like that. We took inspiration from movies, doing zoom shots or close-ups. Using the camera. We wanted to use these techniques in manga, really violent movement. We were trying to move the panels in a realistic kind of way, to make work without lies, true work. In work before, for example, if a samurai cuts someone-
CR: There’s that great line from the book: “If a person is stabbed, they bleed.”
YT: Even if a person’s head was cut off and fell to the ground there was no blood, nothing came out. Like an onion [Tatsumi chuckles]. Even if the head was separated from the body it looked like the head was still alive… You couldn’t really say that would have a bad influence on kids. So we came in and took a bat to the whole thing. We did more realistic work, more photographic almost. In Tezuka Osamu’s work animals speak, and people answer them. I think that’s probably the influence of Walt Disney, but when we wrote mysteries it’s no good if animals are talking. If a dog watches a murder or something and you know that the killer escapes – if the dog says “oh hey, that’s the murderer,” that’s not really a good thing. So we didn’t draw things like that. We drew realistic things, like the strong feelings of happiness or sadness that people have. Close-ups on the main character to really show their anger – when you’re looking from far away there’s not really a lot of power in that angle. When you’re drawing a work like that, of course you’re going to see blood. If you compare that manga with the children’s manga up to that point, they just couldn’t forgive – they wouldn’t accept that kind of manga. The [parent-teacher associations] were like, “let’s just not buy it.” A lot of them sprung up all over Japan to boycott the work.
CR: That’s fascinating to me, because this was only a couple of years after the exact same thing essentially happened in the U.S., with parents and politicians and other figures in society trying to ban or boycott violent crime comics.
YT: Yeah, it was the same thing.
CR: You mentioned Tezuka, and there’s a few times in the book where he’s depicted as an icon. Obviously he was a great influence on you, but I’m wondering why you made that specific choice to depict him this way – there’s the silhouette on the train at the start of the book, and then he’s sort of shown floating above the sea near the end.
YT: That was how I felt about Tezuka at that time. I mean, when I was a kid I thought of him about on the same level as God. I really wanted to draw that honestly. Right now I don’t think many young people are buying Tezuka’s work in Japan, but at that time… he had a halo, and lights came off of him…
CR: To me, reading later Tezuka books like MW or Apollo’s Song and comparing them to his earlier work, it seems he became influenced by the new style you and others were already exploring. Do you agree with that? It’s almost as if he internalized the critique…
YT: We were imitating Tezuka when we became mangaka. [Then we created] what became gekiga, and Tezuka Osamu took an interest in it. Our work was all called “dramatic pictures,” he knew that, and kind of got angry, maybe? [Tatsumi laughs]. He fell down the stairs a little bit, he came down a few rungs… I think there was definitely some influence from us, but when we met with Tezuka and talked with him he would say, “Oh no, my work’s definitely not gekiga, it’s definitely manga.” But before we lost him [Tezuka died of cancer in 1989], when we talked to him, he would say: “Maybe my work is getting a little closer to gekiga, you never know.” … I really wanted him to just keep drawing manga no matter what. Gekiga was a world of – it was us, who were regular crazy people, and to have Tezuka Osamu come into that world… I didn’t really want that.
CR: Later on, after the events that you depict in A Drifting Life, you worked with a studio of assistants…Do you think you were a good teacher, or at least a good boss?
YT: I was a pretty selfish boss. I wasn’t really a good boss. If you use an assistant it stops being your own pictures, right? It’s not all your work anymore. Part of it is your work. So when you publish that… it’s hard for me. I always drew all the characters, and then the backgrounds, the details, the extra stuff – drawing the squares for the panels, shading, erasing the pencil marks – all those kinds of things, I had five assistants doing that. If you didn’t have five assistants you couldn’t get magazine serial work, because you had a deadline every week. You had to put out at least 30 pages a week. With just one person, with just yourself, it would be impossible, you just couldn’t work. So even though I had some people who didn’t really do a lot of work, I had five people.
CR: Are you still friendly with any of the collaborators or peers from those days, like Matsumoto or Takao Saito?
YT: At first there were seven of us, and then we had eight. And of those people now I’m really good friends with four of them. The other two don’t draw gekiga anymore, they’re doing different work. So there’s only two of us now that are doing gekiga, me and Saito Takao.
CR: Some of these artists are still almost totally unknown here, and perhaps they’ve been forgotten even in Japan as well. Are there any books or works that you really think should be rediscovered and published here, like yours was?
YT: I don’t really read anything recently, for some dozens of years I haven’t been reading anything…Japanese manga, we’re not really all together, we kind of keep to ourselves. This might sound a bit snotty, but – I read something like Golgo 13 and I’m maybe ten pages into it and I start thinking of something else, my thoughts just go somewhere else. It’s kind of a bother, so I just don’t read it. It’s not just Golgo 13 but anything that’s popular, you know? Even if I read it it just doesn’t go in my head. There’s a big gap between me and the younger artists, in terms of age, so even if I do read someone’s work I don’t feel it. I’m not moved by it. I’m sorry I have to say that, but…
CR: No, that’s okay. Is there a conscious way you approach political content in your art? Like the Hiroshima story from Good-Bye, or the anti-American protests at the end of A Drifting Life… are they just part of society’s broader story?
YT: In Japan, with politics and politicians there’s really nothing I personally can do, but what I can do – political unrest or the lives of the citizens, I’d like to express that somehow. When I was writing about Hiroshima in that story [“Hell”], I was broke forever, and everyone around me was broke. I was angry about that, you know? Japan has become such a rich country, and here we are, so why aren’t the politicians taking that extra money and giving it to us, giving it to the citizens? It’s the same now in Japan. It doesn’t change. My own dissatisfaction, my frustration, I put that into my work. At the time I wrote “Hell” I always worked for magazines, so I could write freely like that. “Hell” was written for Japanese Playboy, in fact. No one would publish that kind of manga, so it was kind of a surprise that even Playboy would give me work. I think I’ve left behind some really good work. I’d like to just keep writing like a novelist, keep writing for as long as I can. I’m pretty satisfied.
CR: I’ve heard that you’re already working on the next volume of your memoir and have a few hundred pages done, so I assume you’ll be doing that for the foreseeable future, but I’m wondering if there’s any books from before, after or during your gekiga period that you’d like to see reprinted… I want to see the one with the giant snakes.
YT: I have so many. If you put my short stories and my longer volumes together, I’ve written about a thousand pieces. I’d like to [recover] as many of them as possible. I plan on writing the continuation of A Drifting Life within the near future. If I don’t do it soon – I don’t have that much life left, you know? [Tatsumi laughs.] I gotta do it as soon as possible.