Friday, June 26, 2009


The story: This is actually a collection of one-shot manga stories by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, whose A Drifting Life was recently published in the U.S. Tatsumi, who created the gekiga, or alternative comics, genre, explores post-World War II Japan in this harrowing collection of stories about perseverance in the decades following the war. As Japan climbs ever higher towards economic prosperity, the middle class and those below serve as a sacrifice.

Throughout the nine short stories, there is a common thread of loneliness and what it drives a person to do in order to fill the void. Throughout, references are made to death and dying, and the artificial closeness one creates through sex. Although all of the stories are reflective of their era -- the early 1970s -- and are set accordingly, the story that serves as this book's title shows the life of a woman and her father during the American occupation of Japan following the war. This is a gritty look at life in a time when Japan's growing pains were acutely felt by those in its lowest rungs, and the lengths people go to fulfill the promise of companionship and human connection.

Reaction: This was dark and depressing in so many ways. Time and again, I found myself not only empathizing with characters, but truly pitying them. In "Woman in the Mirror," a young boy's penchant for cross-dressing is discovered by a classmate; the friend eventually rationalizes it was because of his friend's burden of being the only man in the family. In another tale, "Life is so Sad," a young woman waits for her boyfriend's release from prison, serving as a belittled hostess at a club. These people suffer for those around them, willingly taking the pain, both emotional and physical, that they must endure for another. There were also funnier moments, like in "Just a Man" and "Rash." But, they serve as short respites from the other, darker themes Tatsumi writes about. This book is an exploration of how our humanity survives the worst that life offers.

Deep thoughts: Tatsumi's attitudes towards the nuclear bombings during World War II and Japan's compliance in the Vietnam War come to the forefront in Good-Bye. Here, Tatsumi starts and ends on the subject of the war's toll on the Japanese people, not only showing the physical scars, but also the emotional ones. In "Hell," he even turns the sadness of war into another display of the lingering evil lurking in a man's heart following his mother's death during the bombing of Hiroshima. Tatsumi puts humanity on display here, showing everything from simple joys to the depths of despair.

Artwork: Tatsumi's artwork is nothing like the cartoony style employed by his contemporary at the time, Osamu Tezuka. His backgrounds are realistic, showing the poverty and grime of urban cities. While his panel work is more than competent, it was confusing to see the same character design employed time and again. In several stories, I found myself wondering if what I was reading was connected to another story, especially since the same man seemed to be appearing throughout. Of course, it's also easy to see the influence that Tatsumi has had on comics since -- whether it's in the seinen genre of comics in Japan, or the work done by American graphic novelist (and editor of both A Drifting Life and Good-Bye) Adrian Tomine, of Summer Blonde and Shortcomings fame.

The verdict: Highly recommended. While this book isn't for anyone, this was honestly an amazing piece of storytelling that details the times and attitudes prevalent in 1970s Japan. Life was hard following World War II and it's an eye-opening experience to see exactly how Japan got to where it is today. Lastly, both the introduction by Fred Schodt and the interview between Tomine and Tatsumi reveal more about this powerful and influential artist and his history in the pantheon of manga. Good-Bye is available in the U.S. from Drawn & Quarterly.

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