Gekiga

Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

With the remarkable influence of Osama Tezuka’s work beginning in 1947, manga were legitimized and embraced in Japanese popular culture.  The majority of the volumes were published in Tokyo, but an alternate industry competed  with the monthly magazines that were voraciously purchased by readers. Based in Osaka, kashibon’ya were pay-libraries that charged a small fee to loan out manga according to the number of days they were borrowed. In the 1950s, as many as 30 000 lending shops operated in Japan. The readership of these comics grew to include many young adults and factory employees. Consequently, the stories in these volumes began to introduce increasingly mature storylines. Yoshihiro Tatsumi was among the vanguard of artists experimenting with this form.

Especially with the publication of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life in English, it is fitting to revisit Abandon the Old in Tokyo (Drawn & Quarterly, 2006), one of Tatsumi’s highly acclaimed early works.

Edited, designed and lettered by Adrian Tomine, the stories in Abandon the Old in Tokyo marked a turning point in graphic narrative in Japan. At the end of the collection, Tatsumi remarks in a written interview between Tomine and Tatsumi that these works were among the first instances of gekiga:

Translated literally as “dramatic pictures,” gekiga is a term Tatsumi coined in 1957 to describe the darker, more realistic style of cartooning that he and his peers were pioneering. Gekiga might best be thought of as a style or genre within the broader term of manga, in the way that “underground” or “alternative” are subsets of the term “comics” (197).

The dark tales that Tatsumi was developing at the time were a reaction against the gag humour that was omnipresent in the early manga of Japan, and which continue to flourish to this day.

The stories included in Abandon the Old in Tokyo were initially printed in a variety of publications—some adult-oriented, some in children’s manga, others in works that were geared towards adults, but which were the exclusive domain of underground creators. The intent behind gekiga was nothing short of accurately representing reality, albeit a bleak interpretation. Though humour was still present in these stories, it was less slapstick than the material that Tatsumi had submitted in his shorter four panel or single panel stories in the past.

Tatsumi had no awareness of the underground movement transpiring in North America at the same time that he was breaking down barriers in Japan, and even at the time of the interview (2006) Tatsumi suggested that his familiarity with key players in the North American underground comix movement was limited.

The protagonist in the graphic short stories of Abandon the Old in Tokyo looks very similar from one tale to the next. Though his thoughts and mannerisms may differ throughout, this persona nonetheless represents a composite characterization of Tatsumi himself. The narrative thread that runs through all of Abandon the Old in Tokyo is an affinity for the working class. Tatsumi’s everyman gives voice to the challenges of paying the rent as a manga artist, looking after his parents on meager earnings (from which the title of the volume is derived), washing windows for a living, struggling with bankruptcy, cleaning sewers, and surviving junior high school—among other perspectives lending themselves to highly existential treatments within the text.

In the Tomine interview, Tatsumi further explains that early in his career, publishers were reluctant to print more than short stories, since the artist’s prominence had not yet been established. In 1974, Tatsumi began to receive requests for longer works, was acknowledged as one of the first “graphic novel” creators with Black Blizzard, initially published in the late 1950s and recently released by Drawn & Quarterly in an English translation.

For the manga uninitiated such as myself, Abandon the Old in Tokyo was a welcome discovery. The poignancy and originality present in these story-comics initially published forty years ago is testament to the timeless quality that makes them just as readable today.

Abandon the Old in Tokyo is one of a series of works by Drawn & Quarterly reproducing Tatsumi’s gekiga into English. Adrian Tomine is the senior editor working on the project. Other books of Tatsumi’s work printed to date (2010) include Good-Bye (1971-1972) and The Push Man and Other Stories (1969).

LINKS:

 

 

Instuds interview with Adrian Tomine

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