Pioneering manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi, chronicler of postwar Japanese alienation

23 Mar

On March 7, 2015, manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi died in Tokyo at the age of 79. I first heard of him when Dwight Garner reviewed his massive manga autobiography, A Drifting Life, in The New York Times on April 15, 2009. I immediately went out and purchased it after reading the review and read it afterwards.

Tatsumi was famous in Japan for injecting adult themes into Japanese comic books (manga), starting in 1956, when his first full-length manga story, “Black Blizzard,” was published when he was just 21. It’s a vivid, action-packed story of crime, natural disaster, and redemption, done in the style of a hard-hitting, tightly edited crime movie. He popularized the term, “Gekiga,” to differentiate adult-themed manga from comics aimed at children.

What struck me as I read A Drifting Life was Tatsumi’s frequent inclusion of social, cultural, and political touchstones that affected him as he was growing up in the postwar era, first in Osaka and then in Tokyo. I was especially moved by his references to the American films he saw during this period as well as other foreign film and literary influences. He also makes reference to numerous Japanese pop cultural figures that required further research on my part. As I mentioned in my last blog entry (March 8, 2015), I first heard about the singing trio, “Sannin Musume,” and their musicals in a panel from this manga:

The lead singer from that trio, Hibari Misora, is also referenced three other times in A Drifting Life:

It was after coming across these references that I sought out Misora’s films and CDs.

I made a lot of other discoveries in the book, but I will let my review of it tell the story, interlaced with shots of manga panels from the book:

Amazon review: Nov. 27, 2010

Fascinating glimpses of postwar Japanese cultural life

On Wed. April 15, 2009, Dwight Garner reviewed Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s autobiographical manga, “A Drifting Life,” in the pages of The New York Times, a rare devotion of attention by the Times to anything manga-related. I read the review and immediately went out and bought the book at Jim Hanley’s Universe in Manhattan. It took me a long time to read, partly because of the wealth of background details included in the book. Tatsumi frequently points out historical events and pop culture phenomena that took place at the time he was developing as a manga artist. I found it particularly gratifying that he mentions a large number of American films that had an impact on him. For instance, he devotes three pages to the western, SHANE (1953), recreating scenes from the film in drawings. He also mentions a lot of important Japanese films, from the famous (SEVEN SAMURAI) to the obscure (THE THIRTEEN EYES). (There’s so much to savor in these pages that the thought of speeding through it, as some reviewers here have bragged about doing, appalls me.)

I took notes on everything I found interesting and even went on lengthy tangents away from the book to explore some of the people and items mentioned. I first heard of singer Hibari Misora from this book. She was the most popular recording star in postwar Japan and I’ve since acquired quite a collection of her CDs. Later in the book, Tatsumi mentions a movie musical that Misora made, and I tracked down its title, JANKEN MUSUME (1955), and have since acquired and viewed a DVD copy of the film and reviewed it on IMDB. When he mentioned Japan’s first color movie, CARMEN COMES HOME (1951), I was astounded because I’d always been led to believe that GATE OF HELL (1953) was Japan’s first color movie. I have since acquired and viewed CARMEN COMES HOME, a delightful comedy about a Tokyo stripper who makes a “triumphal” return to her rural hometown, and reviewed it also on IMDB.

Hideko Takamine in CARMEN COMES HOME, 1951

Tatsumi expresses an affection for French films such as PEOPLE OF NO IMPORTANCE (DES GENS SANS IMPORTANCE, 1955) starring Jean Gabin. (This parallels “Galaxy Express 999” creator Leiji Matsumoto’s tracing his style of drawing women back to the French movie, MARIANNE OF MY YOUTH, 1955.) We learn that Walt Disney’s DUMBO was the first foreign film to be dubbed into Japanese. We get a look at wrestler Rikidozan, who beat an American opponent in 1954 by using karate chops. There are many more items like this and it was fun discovering them. All this and Osamu Tezuka, too. (Tezuka, Japan’s premier manga artist and the creator of Astro Boy, was Tatsumi’s mentor and is a character in the book.) Tatsumi recreates most of this material through drawings, although he occasionally relies on photo reproductions, including one of Japanese beauty Kinuko Ito, who placed 3rd in the Miss Universe contest in 1953.

At one point, Tatsumi describes how famed manga artist Takao Saito (“Golgo 13”) was influenced by American “hard-boiled” crime novelist Mickey Spillane (creator of Mike Hammer). Occasionally, he offers intriguing tidbits without going into enough depth, including a brief comparison of manga style to American comics and the display of a newspaper headline, “Vulgar manga proliferates / PTA takes stand,” addressing the backlash against adult manga. I wanted to hear a lot more from Tatsumi about these things.

At a certain point towards the end of the book, I realized I wasn’t seeing enough of Tatsumi’s actual manga in these pages. We get a panel here and a cover drawing there, but not enough to truly demonstrate to me what role his work played in the overall development of postwar manga aimed at older readers. I wanted to see whole pages from his original manga. I’ve read lots of manga, but I’d never encountered Tatsumi’s work before reading this book. After finishing the book, I went out to comic book stores and Japanese bookstores in Manhattan to look for Tatsumi’s other manga. “A Drifting Life” was on the shelves, but not the other titles that have been published in English that I’ve been able to identify: “Black Blizzard,” “Abandon the Old in Tokyo,” “The Push Man and Other Stories,” and “Good-Bye.” I guess I’ll have to order them from Amazon. I felt I would have been better prepared to appreciate this autobiographical manga after first being exposed to some of the artist’s previous work. But I didn’t realize this until the end of the book.


Since doing this review, I have acquired the other Tatsumi manga available in English editions in the U.S., including these volumes:

Tatsumi specialized in bleak tales of alienated men (and women) in postwar Tokyo. The men are often emasculated in some way, whether unemployed, impotent, minus a limb, stuck in a dead-end job or a loveless marriage (or both) or the victim of a cheating spouse. The women are usually prostitutes or bar hostesses and sometimes have to support the men that way. It’s all about the state of Japanese men in the postwar era and the difficulties of attaining an identity as a self-sufficient and autonomous individual. Ironically, the happiest character and the most hopeful in any of the stories I read was a husband with a secret life as a transvestite. The stories often take on grotesque elements in tales of abortion or murder or violent pornography. If I had to find an equivalent in American comic books of the postwar era, the closest would be the grim fables of revenge, retaliation and comeuppance found in EC Comics’ line of “Crime Suspenstories,” “Shock Suspenstories,” and “Tales from the Crypt,” although without the supernatural elements of the latter, all from the early 1950s.

In 2011, Singaporean filmmaker Eric Khoo produced a 92-minute animated biopic entitled TATSUMI, which was released on DVD in 2013.

The film animates scenes from “A Drifting Life,” but uses these scenes as linking segments in between five animated adaptations of Tatsumi stories. All five of the stories are available in the volumes released in English. It’s quite a remarkable production all around and offers a unique approach to telling an artist’s life story that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else.

Here are some of the biographical scenes compared to their treatment in the manga autobiography:

And Tatsumi’s historic meeting with manga no kami sama (God of Manga) Osamu Tezuka (creator of “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion,” among many others):

In A Drifting Life, the relationship with Tezuka is explored at much greater length.

The five stories featured in the film are: “Hell,” “Beloved Monkey,” “Just a Man,” “Occupied,” and “Good-bye.” I’ve seen numerous animated adaptations of manga stories, but nothing quite like this. The style of the manga is closely followed and the animation is quite expressive, giving us the kind of shock closeups that are more effective on film than on the page. The horrified expression on the face of the monkey just before he meets his tragic fate in “Beloved Monkey” is a good example of this. I would welcome a whole series of animated adaptations of Tatsumi’s work.

Following are descriptions of the stories accompanied by scenes from both the manga and animated versions:

“Hell” is about a military photographer during the war who is assigned to document the destruction at Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped. He takes a picture of what he assumes to be the shadows left by a son massaging his mother’s shoulders and, six years later, sells the photo to a newspaper and gains fame and fortune as a result, as the nation mourns the Yamadas, the mother and son whose shadows were left on the wall of their home by the atomic blast. However, the photographer soon gets a visit from a man claiming to be Yamada, the son, and declaring that what the photographer captured was a scene of murder.

“Beloved Monkey” is about an alienated factory worker who lives alone with his pet monkey. After he loses his arm in an accident at the factory and is given compensation for it, he tries to find another job, to no avail. He decides to return his pet to the “wild” by taking him to the monkey enclosure at the zoo and letting him loose there, to horrific results.

“Just a Man” is about another alienated worker, a middle-aged salaryman (and war veteran) in an unhappy marriage and a tenuous position in his office, who develops a crush on a younger co-worker. He withdraws his retirement savings and proceeds to splurge but finds himself impotent at a crucial moment. He eventually visits the Yasukuni Shrine to honor his dead war buddies and contemplate suicide.

“Occupied” shows us what happens when an artist of children’s manga discovers pornographic illustrated graffiti on a public toilet wall and becomes obsessed with it.

“Good-Bye,” set in the immediate postwar era, focuses on a woman who makes ends meet by sleeping with American soldiers, while her father, an unemployed war vet, hovers on the periphery, taking whatever she will give him to sustain his meager needs.

Finally, here are shots of the real Tatsumi from the end of the film:

And a shot of him and Tezuka:

And a link to The New York Times obituary, which appeared on March 14, 2015, a week after his death:


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