Despite my best efforts, I can’t get Bill to write for HU more often, so I am forced to steal his comments and pretend they are posts.

Below is a lengthy comment from him on Suat’s post about Tatsumi.

I’ll add that Tatsumi’s story in English is about marketing and a lack of context. D&Q has marketed Tatsumi and “gekiga” very well, though it’s worth noting that the term “gekiga” first appeared in issue 12 (1957) of “Machi,” a rental manga, as a blurb on a Tatsumi title page: “GHOST TAXI” has the title, “Mystery Gekiga” (Encyclopedia of Contemporary Manga, p. 62). It feels closer to “Ghost Taxi Mystery Theater” to me than, say, an equal of any of Kurosawa’s gendai-geki or jidai-geki from the period. Decades later, the gekiga “brand” and an unimpressive body of work have Dwight Garner in the NYTimes saying of Tatsumi’s work, “It’s among this genre’s signal achievements.” (At least Gary Groth, to his credit, never bought it: “I usually only interview artists whose work I like, and I didn’t feel entirely comfortable interviewing Tatsumi. I was troubled by a number of tics that comprised the backbone of Tatsumi’s aesthetic…” TCJ #281, p. 37)

I wanted to add a footnote from a couple Japanese sources: The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Manga, 1945-2005 (Shougakukan), ends its sole entry on Tatsumi with with the fairly tepid, “Recently, his esteem has also grown abroad.” (Just before its publication, in 2003 AX #34 presented an unpublished Tatsumi story with a full-page ad proclaiming his work would be published in the West. AX is from Seirinkogeisha, now the Japanese publisher of his work as well as others in that tradition.)

The rest of the encyclopedia’s entry was a plot summary of the short story “Man-Eating Fish” and a sentence noting how Tatsumi “deeply expressed the dead-end circumstances of men living in society’s lower reaches” (clunky offhand translations mine). A true documentary of those men would be more interesting, but he prefers tidy immorality plays. Even his images, some fine examples of which you selected, no more than equal those of his peers. It’s telling that another Japanese work, the critic Natsume Fusanosuke’s formalist critique “Why Is Manga Interesting,” chooses artists like Nagashima, Tsuge, and Sait? in describing the old gekiga style, but not Tatsumi. Would that D&Q had published five volumes of Shigeru Mizuki and a slim one of Tatsumi. The rest of their gekiga line’s quite strong, but the word’s not very helpful, and the brand even less if it means Tatsumi’s the touchstone for excellent artists like Ouji, Sakabashira, and Mizuki. Mizuki’s a giant; Tatsumi was forgotten until D&Q picked him back up. The result has been a distorted image of his work’s importance more than a valid reassessment, one that even the New York Times repeated uncritically.

And a short but brutal assessment.

Also: would Tatsumi’s stories work better as a one-man show in which the performer yells a title and then kicks the (lone male) audience member in the nuts?

“LIFE IS SO SAD!” kick
“PROGRESS IS WONDERFUL!” kick
“GOOD BYE!” kick

And a discussion of Tatsume in relation to film.

The film comparisons bring up some interesting parallels–

1959-60:
Ozu’s career is winding down, the Japanese New Wave is ramping up, and Kurosawa’s between Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo. The year also saw huge leftist student & labor protests against the Japan-US Mutual Cooperation Treaty, a political event with a long shadow.

Meanwhile, Tatsumi, his brother (Shouichi Sakurai, who drew manga in a gag style), and a few others formed Gekiga Koubou (Gekiga Workshop) in ’59; he’s 23 or 24. It’s a young punks’ jab at Tezuka in a throwaway kids’ medium. Takao Saito joined quickly after, and by ’60 Tatsumi had left and Saito had taken over, renaming it Saito Productions, of course.

1968-73:
By now the Japanese film industry had peaked and begun to decline. Kurosawa’s fruitful period is over, TV has strangled the industry, and Nikkatsu has even given Seijun Suzuki the boot. For the leftists, the Marxist epic Kamui-den winds down in Garo in ’71; in ’68 Touei Douga releases “Hols, Prince of the Sun,” whose production saw labor strikes that included a young Hayao Miyazaki; and best of all in the epic noise band Les Rallizes Denudes, whose bass player helped hijack Japan Airlines Flight 351 to get to Pyongyang in ’70.

Meanwhile Saito Productions has debuted GOLGO 13, which has sold 200 million copies and is still running. Tatsumi’s stuck in Garo, which sells little, doesn’t pay, and lets him do what he wants.

But by October ’73, he’s got a short story (“Woman of Sapporo”) in Garo. It’s drawn from headlines about “coin locker babies” with a clumsy, obvious metaphor at the end. He’s just 38, has lived through a war, poverty, and reconstruction, but even the tumultuous years since coining “gekiga” figure little into his work. All his characters are trapped in their own obsessions, just as he’s trapped in his own artistic rut. Next to his story, Shinichi Abe’s “Tomato” is a humane look at sex and human interaction. Abe’s just 23, but the generational gulf seems huge. I can’t help but see Tatsumi as an artist who got stuck while the world, whether in Saito’s financial success, political turmoil, or younger artists’ creative innovations, passed him by.

So there’s a fix for Bill Randall fans. For more of his writing you can go to his site here.

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