Gekiga Yose – Shibahama: Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Before I even say anything about the latest offering from Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Gekiga Yose: Shibahama, full disclosure: I think Tatsumi is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. And his wife is six kinds of adorable. So I may be a little predisposed to liking his work.

This new-ish book (released July 2009, but it’s been sitting on my shelf waiting patiently to be read) is a bit of a shake-up. I think in English, Tatsumi is known for stories that are a bit on the darker side, turning his focus on the downtrodden and underbelly of society in particular. But he’s actually really funny and a lot of the stuff he’s published in Japanese delights in plays on words, silly jokes and sight gags. So I wasn’t too surprised to learn that his latest publication is a collection of rakugo stories.

In case you aren’t up on your Edo period culture, rakugo is a kind of spoken word performance. One person sits on a zabuton pillow on stage and tells a story. Pretty simple, especially since there is a set repertoire of stories to choose from. But the art of rakugo lies in the telling. The storyteller usually has a hand fan and a small cloth as props, and turns her head and changes her voice slightly to indicate exactly which character is saying what. It can be a bit difficult to follow, especially if your native language isn’t Japanese. I’ve seen a few performances since K., a friend of mine, does rakugo, and I’ve enjoyed them despite missing a lot of key plot points, thanks to K’s expressive and hilarious style.

So what a treat to find in Shibahama a story I saw the last time I was in Japan. K. told it well and made me laugh, but I only understood about 80% of it. Now thanks to Tatsumi, I know the full story.

The protagonist is an upstanding married man who goes to a brothel for the first time and falls in love with the prostitute he is with. So he buys out her debt to the brothel, and sets her up in a house, naturally without mentioning any of this to his wife. She gets suspicious and has him followed. When she finds out the truth, she is enraged and puts all her energy into setting a curse on the prostitute. Learning of this, the prostitute curses the wife back, and the two of them escalate in a spiral of voodoo doll cursing. The curses work and soon both women are dead. Even death, however, can’t stop their jealousy and their spirits appear as little balls of flame to fight with each other every night over the man’s house.

Like all rakugo punchlines, this one is rather abrupt and silly, without actually providing any resolution to the conflict in the story, and yet, somehow satisfies the listener, or in this case, the reader. I love the way Tatsumi captures the indignant “Hmph!” of the scorned wife at the end.

This is a pretty typical rakugo story and representative of the stories Tatsumi chose to turn into gekiga. In the other stories in this collection, he shows us con artists scamming free stays at inns, an annoying brat pushing his parents to their limits, a prostitute hiding from her clients, a virginal young man tricked into visiting a shady part of town, a man befriending the god of death, and a fishmonger who finds a wallet full of cash.

The art looks a little looser than in previous work, almost as if he was trying to capture the brisk back-and-forth style of rakugo in his lines. And like a good rakugo performer, he pulls the reader swiftly through quick-paced stories, using his panels and relatively simple backgrounds to keep you moving forward.

And there are some especially great panels that I almost want to frame: a scene at a brothel reminiscent of some sexy ukiyo-e with piles of kimono engulfing two lovers, a lovingly detailed scene of village commerce, a decadent weekend at an onsen.

Obviously, I liked the book. I’m not sure if it’s my favourite of all the things he’s done, but I’m definitely appreciative of what he was trying to achieve by putting rakugo and gekiga together. He explains in the afterword that he realized that the world of rakugo, depicting as it does the lives of the people of the Edo period, filled with mystery, emotion, revenge, hope, and of course, love, was exactly the world of gekiga and he was forced to re-assess everything he thought he knew about rakugo. I’m certainly glad he did.

Update: Soon you’ll be able to read this in English (as Fallen Words)! Drawn & Quarterly are publishing it in April. Huzzah! And yes, I am still biased, but in a different way this time since I am the one who did the translation. But don’t hold that against this fine collection. Embrace the Tatsumi!

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