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Sunday, Oct. 5, 2008
Dark reflections of postwar Japan
Yoshihiro Tatsumi takes the reader on an illustrated journey through personal hells
By DAVID COZY
GOOD-BYE by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, edited by Adrian Tomine, introduction by Frederik L. Schodt. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 211 pp., $19.95 (cloth)
Reviewed by David Cozy "Hell" is the title of the opening story in "Good-Bye," the third volume of Drawn & Quarterly's ongoing edition of the work of cartoonist Yoshihiro Tatsumi. "This is hell," the last story in the collection ends. "It'll never stop."
One understands why, as Frederik L. Schodt writes in the introduction to this volume, some view Tatsumi's work as "overly kurai or 'dark' and 'pessimistic.' "
Tatsumi's latest, "Good-Bye" is at least as bleak as the previous entries in the series, but differs from those earlier volumes in that the interchangeable laborers who populated them are giving way to middle managers. This is, perhaps, a reflection of the state of the nation in 1971 and 1972 when the stories in "Good-Bye" originally appeared: The nation's focus has shifted from the drones who labored to rebuild the country's houses, roads, and bridges in the first decades after the war, to the drones who labor in offices in service of the ascendant Japanese economy.
The only thing that might be worse than such work — "countless days at the office staring at documents . . . getting worked up about the smallest error," as one character describes it — is the emptiness one feels at the end of such a hellish working life. Tatsumi gives us, in "Good-Bye," a couple of accounts of the desperation of those who are, or soon will be, redundant. More than in the earlier volumes, though, Tatsumi makes explicit the political context in which these and all of his protagonists suffer.
One of them, for example, approaching retirement — a word that sounds to him like "a death knell" — attempts to rebel against his fate by blowing his savings on prostitutes and at the racetrack. Unsurprisingly, his rebellion is a bust, but just when all seems lost, a beautiful young coworker invites him to dinner. They end up in bed, but when the moment the soon- to-be-retired manager has fantasized about arrives, he finds himself impotent.
The story does not end, however, in embarrassment and rumpled sheets, but instead at Yasukuni Shrine. The top half of the last page of the story finds the protagonist at the shrine looking at a cannon — the symbolism is not subtle — "aimed upward into the darkness." In the frames below that image we find him urinating on the cannon, and then reflecting: "We're both impotent now. You worthless old relic." Tatsumi is thus able to move his story from one man's impotence to that of the nation.
Tatsumi, it seems, does not accept that sacrificing one's all for the company — a way of life common in the '70s, and still far from dead — is a worthwhile existence. In "Hell" he tackles a view perhaps even more common, and certainly riskier to question: the notion that all of those incinerated by atomic bombs were innocent victims. The horror of Hiroshima in the days after the bombing is made palpable by the relative simplicity of Tatsumi's drawings in this strip, and also by the understated descriptions his photographer- protagonist gives of the inferno in which he finds himself: "People were resting inside a burned out tram. When I got closer, though, I discovered they were actually charred corpses."
The photographer wanders on until he stumbles across an image etched onto a wall by the bomb's blast: a son, he takes it to be, massaging his aged mother's back. This image is guaranteed to appeal to the sympathy of all but the most hardhearted, and so it does when the photographer sells his photograph of it to a newspaper some years later.
Up to this point in the story readers may believe that, in the destruction of Hiroshima and the tens of thousands of his countrymen who died there, Tatsumi had found a subject that did not give rise to his generally jaundiced view of humanity, but instead inspired him to produce one more in the long line of artworks designed to remind us that there must be, as the slogan goes, "no more Hiroshimas." The image the photographer has captured turns out not to be what it seems. That those charred by the blast are victims there can be no doubt, and Tatsumi raises none. It is the innocence of those victims, and also of those who document their suffering, that he questions as he reminds us that images can convey lies as easily as truth.
The strips collected in "Good-Bye" were all created for magazines such as the Japanese Playboy and the comics anthology Garo. One is grateful for the space such venues gave to artists as challenging as Tatsumi, but wonder what he would have done liberated from the constraints even the freewheeling Garo must have imposed. Perhaps we will get a chance to find out when Tatsumi's massive autobiography, forthcoming from Drawn & Quarterly, appears.
David Cozy, a writer and literary critic, teaches at Showa Women's University.