I wasn’t planning to write about this book now. I wasn’t even thinking about reading it now. I bought it when I was in Japan when it came out in November, mostly to support Mr. Tatsumi, since I’ve read most of the stories in this “masterpiece collection” in other places. So it was low enough on my list of books that I packed it up in the boxes I sent to myself to take a very leisurely trip to my home in Canada. And when the last of the boxes arrived a couple weeks ago, I noted this volume with a bit of surprise. Oh, right. I bought that masterpiece collection. And then I set it aside to read after all the things that were shiny and new to me.
If you follow a bunch of manga nerds on Twitter, you know the “but” that comes at this point: But Tatsumi-sensei died this week. And suddenly this book jumped to the top of my reading list, as did re-reading everything else he’s written. It was the best way I could think of to pay tribute to him (other than a literal tribute to him over at The Comics Journal). If you’ve read A Drifting Life (and if you haven’t, maybe get on that?), then you know how utterly devoted Tatsumi was to his art. He spent his whole life making manga, loving books, so taking the time to read his manga and love his books seemed like the best way to remember and grieve for him.
Brain followers will remember that I got to interpret for Mr. Tatsumi and his amazing wife at TCAF some years ago. I also translated his book of rakugo stories, which I loved, and got to hang out with him in Tokyo whenever I went back. My love and appreciation of the Tatsumis only grew with the years; they are both incredible people that I feel fortunate to know. A lot of people are talking about Tatsumi’s impact on manga and the history of his work, and I’m so glad they are because he did make an impact and there is a lot to discuss in his work. But I’m no manga scholar; all I can speak to is the greatness of the man himself. He was humble and generous and warm and funny. He was so delighted by the success he found so late in life and honestly treasured his fans. But he worked so hard at his art, he deserved that success and every one of those fans.
Kessakusen is the selection of gritty, everyman stories that I expected it to be. Some have been published in English, like “My Hitler,” in which a man grows more and more attached to a rat that hangs around his apartment while alienating his wife, but most are Japanese-language only, and all feature the grim view of the world the English-speaking world has come to expect from Tatsumi. His usual same-faced protagonist features in pretty much all of the stories, but one out of these eleven stories is actually told from the point of view of a woman, a first for me reading Tatsumi.
In “Michikusa Onna”, a woman returns to her husband after abruptly leaving him two years earlier. He takes her back without complaint, picking her up at the train station after getting a letter from her, and brings her back to the home they shared with his mother. She is shocked to discover that everything is exactly the way it was when she left, right down to the calendar on the wall still displaying the page from the day she left. At first, she finds this thoughtful, a sign of how much he loves her, but she soon grows to see it as an attempt on the part of her husband to erase the two years she spent away from him, to erase a part of herself. I love how this woman takes back control of her own life and the husband is relegated to an afterthought in her own story. Not to mention that she is not the usual Tatsumi woman from this period of his work, relegated to being a sex object/obstacle in the path of the male protagonist. I would buy the entire collection just for this story and the different light it sheds on Tatsumi as a creator.
(Also shedding a different light on Tatsumi: his insane rat-man series. Six books of a man raised by rats trying to get vengeance on the world! Pulpy as hell and I loved every page of it. I know he has the “serious artist” image, but dang, I would pony up my dollars for a translation of that series.)
What I didn’t expect from Kessaku, however, is an afterword from Tatsumi-sensei. Reading it, I could hear his almost gravelly voice, telling me about his days working in the rental manga business and living in a tiny apartment without a bath. And then I realized that that voice was entirely in my head and that I would never hear it again, not from the man himself.
It’s a weird thing when an artist dies. They leave so much of themselves behind. But the essential part, the “them” is gone. Tatsumi-sensei was alive when Kessaku came out, he wrote an afterword for it. He was probably hard at work on the sequel to A Drifting Life. And then, by the time I read this book, he was not. But his words are still there on the page for me to read. It’s weird and heartbreaking. I’m not really going anywhere with this. My heart is just broken that someone so wonderful could be gone.