Tatsumi: Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Did you know that someone (a certain Eric Khoo of Singapore) made an animated film about Tatsumi? And that he called it Tatsumi? And that it premiered at Cannes this past spring? And that it made its Tokyo debut in October when I just happened to be in said city? At this point, you’re probably expecting me to mention casually how I got invited to the Japanese premiere, but no. (Insert sad sigh here.) I did meet Tatsumi and his wife a couple weeks after the premiere, and so in the email back-and-forth leading up to that meeting, I strongly hinted that I would like to be invited, but it was not meant to be. Instead, when we met for lunch at a dark cafe in Jimbocho, he slid this collection of stories from the movie across the table, complete with beautiful illustration on the inside cover and the inscription “To Dear Allen” above it. I love this so sincerely and completely without a hint of irony.

The book itself is also lovely with a cinematic cover, all fade out to black. The lonely figure depicted in the centre of that fade-out pretty much sets the tone for the stories inside (beautifully laid out on pages edged in black, a nice touch that makes each page reminiscent of a movie frame). All of the stories are from around the seventies (or as I like to call it the bleakest time in Tatsumi’s career), and I’ve read them all before in other collections. I think they’ve also been published in English, although I don’t have all the English story collections so I can’t be sure. In any case, it’s interesting to see them put together here in the context of telling the story of Tatsumi’s life and career. From what I understand, the majority of the film is based on his memoir A Drifting Life, but this is interspersed with some of his work itself. I’d love to hear why Khoo chose these particular pieces as representative of Tatsumi’s life and work.

They are definitely some of his most well-known and powerful pieces, including “Hell”, the story of a military man sent to Hiroshima immediately after the bomb was dropped. Photographing the wreckage of the city for the army, he comes across a shadow scorched into concrete by the power of the blast, what appears to be a young man massaging the shoulders of his tired mother. His photograph of this moment obliterated by the atomic bomb becomes a rallying point of sorts for the burgeoning “No More Hiroshimas” movement, and he is sent around the country and the globe to speak of the horror and the aftermath of Hiroshima. I’ll keep the spoilers to myself and just say that in trying to do something right, the photographer does something terribly wrong and to no avail whatsoever.

This is something that comes up again and again in these stories: people trying to do right or make do however they can, and coming up short or crashing into walls of one type or another. In “Abandon the Old in Tokyo”, the young man nurses his dying mother while trying to forget about the pain she caused him as a boy, and makes decisions he ends up regretting. In “Otoko Ippatsu”, a salaryman on the verge of retiring pisses on a cannon at Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan has traditionally interred its war dead, as a kind of revenge on his dead war buddies for being able to live their lives with dignity and without compromise. The protagonist of “Beloved Monkey” loses his arm to a machine when his dreams of a better life cause him to look the wrong way at the wrong moment.

There are a couple stories like “Good-Bye” with a greater narrative focus on the female characters, but even then, the focus is split between the trials of the female and male protagonists, and the majority of the works focus on an everyman sort of character whose features are almost unchanged from story to story. But it’s exactly because of the generic nature of his protagonists that these stories are able to succeed in the way they do. This guy is just regular, just a working-class schlub trying to get by in a difficult world. Some of the things he comes up against are kind of out there (like in “Who Are You?” when he keeps a scorpion in a can), but the fact is, he is just a guy, nothing special, working hard to take care of what needs taking care of. So that when he lashes out or makes some effort to change his situation, you can relate somehow.

What I love about Tatsumi, and what’s reflected so perfectly in these stories, is how well he is able to depict the conflicts people have within themselves about their relationships with other people. The son feels an obligation towards his mother, but also a hostility and a desire to be rid of her; the salaryman wishes he had never married his spiteful wife; the young machinist feels a bit of hope mixed in with his hated of the crowded city of Tokyo when a young woman is kind to him; I love how obliquely Tatsumi approaches these relationships, never making anything obvious, but just letting the emotions slip out from between the lines.

So yes, I will see the movie when I get the chance (it was supposed to come out on DVD this month, but I don’t see it for sale anywhere, so.), but regardless of how good or bad it is, I’m glad it happened if only so I could have the chance to re-read some great stories in a new collection, and to see a delightful author photo of Tatsumi on the red carpet at Cannes, looking sharp as hell in a tuxedo.

And it seems that this is the last book my brain will tackle this year. So high fives to it for defeating a book every single week, and high fives to you for reading all about the battle! Join my brain again next year for more sizzling literary adventures. The mountain of books-to-be-read is climbable at this point, so there will be no shortage of things to read and discuss, but feel free to make suggestions. Learning about new books is nearly as great a treat as reading new books. Fingers crossed that 2012 is full of books for all of us!

3 thoughts on “Tatsumi: Yoshihiro Tatsumi

  1. Is the DVD really out yet? I also didn’t see it anywhere here.
    Ooo, you got to meet him, that was really nice! He was in town for a small promotion event for the movie in Kinokuniya three months ago. That’s how I know about this movie. Haven’t got the chance to watch it yet, though.

    I’ve read some of his works, like ‘The Pushman and Other Stories’ and ‘Abandon the Old in Tokyo’.
    ‘A Drifting Life’ looks interesting, but it is currently out of my budget.

    His stories are…I dunno, a bit painful to read. Not as in, they are not good, but they are heartache inducing. I don’t know how else to describe it. The characters are not good-looking, mundane, ordinary and imperfect. And their struggles are so real and somewhat tragic.

    I am rather curious if he is popular in Japan. His works seem so far from mainstream style.

    1. So it’s not just me that hasn’t come across the DVD yet. I guess it’s not out yet.

      I was Tatsumi’s interpreter when he came to TCAF in 2009, which is how I initially met him and his wife. He’s super nice (as is she!). I actually translated his collection of rakugo stories recently. It’s going to be published by Drawn & Quarterly in the spring as Fallen Words. All of which makes me very biased when it comes to his work. That said, I think A Drifting Life is interesting, if only for the history of that period of manga making. But I liked seeing Tatsumi’s personal story woven into the greater fabric of the society around him. And this book is definitely different than his short story collections in English, more humour, less depression. I do agree that those stories are heartache-inducing. It can be painful to read them, but a good kind of painful, the kind that makes you think.

      Ironically, from what I’ve seen, his work has been gaining popularity again in Japan because of his successes overseas. Just a couple years ago, it was quite difficult to find his work in a mainstream bookstore, but the last time I was in Japan, I saw several of his books in a few bookstores I went to. It’s interesting to see this kind of feedback cycle, his popularity in the West leading to popularity in his home country.

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