Even before legendary mangaka Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s graphic novel memoir, A Drifting Life, was published by Drawn & Quarterly, it received critical acclaim. Profiled in a number of American publications, the book was also awarded the Osamu Tezuka prize in Japan, gaining Tatsumi recognition in his home country. A guest at the recent PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, Tatsumi was on hand to discuss his creation of the book including his reason for creating an alias to narrate the autobiography (for objectivity he said) and for starting the memoir at the end of World War II. “I believe the real Japan and Japanese life began after the war,” Tatsumi said. “Before that, the people of Japan were slaves to the military and to the Emperor.”
Truly, the end of World War II was the birth of a new Japan and the visceral memories that lingered from a childhood spent experiencing war—the burning bodies, smell of death and stinking corpses—gave way to Tatsumi’s historic life and livelihood in creating manga. PW Comics Week was able talk with Tatsumi during his whirlwind tour of speaking obligations and book signings in New York and ask him once again about manga, the creation of gekiga, the grimly naturalistic style of manga he is credited with creating, and his life as an artist. PWCW contributor Anne Ishii was on hand to translate our questions and Tatsumi’s gracious responses.
PWCW: In A Drifting Life, you write of your time being “sardine canned” in which you depict a variety of manga creators in a “hanging out” atmosphere. Was there a sense of camaraderie? Did you all influence each other’s work?
YT: We were only in the sardine can for two months at a time, so not long enough to translate into influencing each other. But in terms of the lifestyle, some of us—there were three of us, two of us were living separately from our parents for the first time and we got to “spread our wings”. We got to stay up late, we got to sleep in, nobody was bothering us. It was really fun. So that’s why it seems like we were relaxed. But certainly we were working. And the work actually became a sort of chore. It was August and it was really hot. The humidity just dampened all of our work, all of our line-art got smudged, our hands would smudge everything and it got messy. And it also turned into a sort of excuse for [extending deadlines]. Because all of our work was being ruined by the humidity.
PWCW: You spotlight many of your peers who are also became gekiga creators. But you had the most heated debates with your brother, Okimasa.
YT: From the beginning, Okimasa was anti-gekiga and against it in principle. He himself was more into political cartoons. But I was more narrative driven, I was writing story manga. Gradually, Okimasa acknowledged gekiga and learned to accept it. But this whole time I have been defending it, defending what I believed in. Sure, [the debates with Okimasa] influenced me.
PWCW: Does Okimasa still create manga?
YT: After the collapse of the gekiga caucus that we created, he actually gave up manga altogether and entered into a regular career in printing at a print manufacturing plant. He was already extremely physically weak and keeping up with the manga lifestyle was really taking a toll on him. [Manga] requires writing, drawing and revising everyday and to make any money, to make a living, you have do it everyday and he couldn’t keep up.
PWCW: You owned and ran a used-books store for 18 years. Sometimes people would come looking for you, the founder of gekiga, but you would hide in the back.
YT: There were times when people used to come to the store, asking to meet me, but I would hide in the back. My wife would tell them “He’s not here.” Sometimes, I wouldn’t make it [to the back] in time and they would catch me and ask “Are you Mr. Tatsumi?” and I would tell them “No, that’s my brother.”
PWCW: Why did you want to hide?
YT: I was embarrassed. I liked thinking of myself as a successful manga artist, but running the book shop meant that I wasn’t. I was a very proud cartoonist and the thought of being the “comic book artist who doesn’t make enough money and has to run a bookstore” was embarrassing. We closed the bookstore about five years ago.
PWCW: Because you had too much work in comics to do?
YT: No, because we just couldn’t keep up with maintaining it. At one point, while running the store, I was working a lot. I was helping Shigeru Mizuki draw GeGeGe no Kitaro [a popular comic in Japan about a boy who helps humans and ghosts co-exist peacefully] doing approximately two issues per month when it was serialized in Shonen Jump [a weekly manga anthology]. That was quite a bit of work. That was about a year’s worth of work. This was in 1984.
PWCW: Do you still keep in touch with you peers?
YT: I don’t meet with any of them personally, but if there’s a get-together, I go. I’ve never been one to call someone and ask how they’re doing.
PWCW: How did you meet your wife?
YT: She was a waitress at a restaurant. We started dating at the end of A Drifting Life, during the part about the student movement. So she’s not in the book.
PWCW: So she will be in the next issue?
YT: Well of course, there are a lot of fights I can write about.
PWCW: A Drifting Life is over 800 pages long. Can you tell us about the different process for creating long form narrative versus short stories?
YT: With shorter work, it’s more experimental, there’s more elbow room. For longer work, I have to be a lot more calculating. There’s actual math that I have to do. I have to think of the number of pages, I must get to the end and certain things must happen. As for the characters, in short stories, I don’t care what the characters look like. But in a long story, I care. I have to make sure it’s someone that I want to draw over and over again. I have one series that’s over 1000 pages long called “Gold is King.” It’s one of my personal favorites. It’s a comedy about the son of extremely rich parents, who has lots of girlfriends who all fall in love with his money. I was drawing 50 pages per month for six years for this series alone. Before I was doing short stories, I was using gekiga style art. But it was always about making money. I’m a career manga artist. It’s always been about money and fulfilling contracts.
PWCW: You coined the term “gekiga” and started the movement. Did your work influence independent comics artists like Sanpei Shirato (who helped finance and was prominently featured in indie comics magazine GARO)?
YT: I’m pretty sure that my work didn’t influence Sanpei Shirato. Shirato is probably the better gekiga artist. I came up with the term but people began using it because they needed a tag, they stuck it on their work to make it more distinguished. I don’t think my work has directly influenced anyone or what gekiga means or the way it is used.
I thought gekiga had seen its moment in the rental shops. Manga owes itself to the phenomenon of rental shops. This was a time when the Japanese had no disposable income but for five cents, kids could check out 10 comics and could be influenced by 10 totally different styles. It’s because of this economy of comics that everybody was able to read all these different things and that’s why I think that manga is what it is today, because everyone had a chance to read a lot of different manga. The way it worked was much like movie theaters. There was a first run movie theater, a second run movie theater and a third run oldies movie theater. In the same way, there was a first run rental shop with 30,000 books, a second run rental shop with 20,000 books and a third run shop where it was just pieces of paper taped together that used to be comics. But there was a store for everyone. If you couldn’t afford 10 comics at the first run shop, there was the second run shop you could go to.
PWCW: What does gekiga mean to you? How do you define it?
YT: Gekiga is a term people throw around now to describe any manga with violence or eroticism or any spectacle. It’s become synonymous with spectacular. But I write manga about households and conversations, love affairs, mundane stuff that is not spectacular. I think that’s the difference. The term gets used but really gekiga is more like kigeki, “tragedy” so it’s more like kigekiga, “tragedy style.” Gekiga to people means sad ending, they think that something violent or awful has to happen, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Stylistically, geki means “theater” so it’s theatrical, it’s about setting scenes up and structurally moving from frame to frame so that there is a relation between the very first frame and the very last frame. It’s like a screenplay. I’ve been influenced by film. That’s one thing that I’m sure I do well, pacing stories.
PWCW: You were awarded the Osamu Tezuka prize this year in Japan. Now you’re a guest here at the PEN World Voices Festival and at the Toronto Comics Art Festival. How does it feel to be recognized like this?
YT: I actually want to ask the critics, what attracted you to this work? I never meant for this, I never thought it would be talked about like this. I mean, I write about Japanese households. I’ve always been worried—I’ve never understood popularity, it’s something that I’ve struggled with, how to make this appeal to people, how to make people identify [with my work]. It’s always been something I’ve been very insecure about. I don’t read much of other people’s work. Maybe I should. Maybe I’m missing something. I’m learning so much from this experience, from the way people are responding to my work. It’s teaching me a lot. I feel good that I wasn’t wrong. I’ve been on this track for so long and I haven’t been that successful in Japan. But now some people are getting it. It’s very gratifying.