Tatsumi Yoshihiro: a pioneer of gekiga before it became manga

June 3rd, 2015 by

As pervasive as manga is today, it’s hard to imagine this particular type of Japanese comics isn’t the only kind. Whereas “Manga”  might be translated as “whimsical pictures”, gekiga, — the kind of Japanese comics that recently deceased Tatsumi Yoshihori (June 10, 1935 – March 7, 2015) has pioneered since 1957 —  translates to “dramatic pictures”, implying a far more serious nature.

Tatsumi has been drawing comics from a young age, initially as 4-panel comics on postcards, sending them out to various local comic magazines. When a reporter came to interview the young talent, his connections put Tatsumi on a chance path to be introduced to his great idol, the “father and God of manga”, Tezuka Osamu. This event had a big impact on Tatsumi and Tezuka became a major influence for him throughout his entire career, even if they did have very differing visions on what constitutes manga and what doesn’t.

Tatsumi Yoshihiro in 2010 © Yasu via Wikimedia Commons
Tatsumi Yoshihiro in 2010 © Yasu via Wikimedia Commons

In 1957 the adolescent Tatsumi pioneered the gekiga movement, the result of which were publications of much more serious Japanese comics than manga. His “dark” works of the ’60s and ’70s contained in essence his critique on the widening divide between rich and poor as Japan’s post-war economy was booming. For the common Japanese, the increased wealth of the nation wasn’t equally shared, which made Tatsumi want to protest against this in his work.

Many of Tatsumi’s earlier works were not available in the West for a long time. That changed when Adrian Tomine, a popular American cartoonist of Japanese descent, discovered his work and convinced his publisher, Drawn and Quarterly, one of the most prominent comics publishers of Canada, to pick it up. Eventually Tomine ended up editing and designing Drawn and Quarterly’s editions of Tatsumi’s graphic novels. Because of this, Tatsumi’s star was finally rising outside of Japan as well.

When Tatsumi made an appearance at The Toronto Comic Arts Festival of 2009, it was Tomine who interviewed him during a panel. Deb Aoki recorded this interview and added her own interview with Tatsumi, allowing for a really insightful and extensive look into his life, work ethic and vision. Recommended reading for sure.

Tatsumi’s drawing style, very distinctively not your average manga, is just as disarming as the humble yet wise artist that he has become. Backgrounds and settings are very detailed and realistic yet always seem to strike a minimalistic tone in their careful compositions. His characters are drawn with friendly round features, capturing in a few lines the essence of what Tatsumi wanted them to express through their body language. It’s as Da Vinci, another master, would say: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” For more insight into Tatsumi’s artistic style and story telling manner, read this insightful eulogy by Jennifer Lucy Allan.

Many of Tatsumi’s works initially haven’t reached the West. Thanks to Adrian Tomine and Drawn and Quarterly, there have been several high quality graphic novels released since 2005 or so, containing collections of Tatsumi’s stories. Some titles include The Push Man and Other Stories, Fallen Words, Good-Bye and Abandon the Old in Tokyo. They are very diverse slice-of-life stories with unusual protagonists taken from all corners of life.

A Drifting Life cover - Licensed under Fair use via WikipediaA Drifting Life cover - Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia
A Drifting Life cover – Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

Special mention is reserved for A Drifting Life, Tatsumi’s epic autobiography of over 800 pages. Among the many awards it has won is the 13th Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize in 2009. Indeed, named after Tatsumi’s idol and inspiration. A Drifting Life chronicles Tatsumi’s life from 1945 to 1960, showing how his career as a published manga artist unfolded, his turn to gekiga, the more serious counterpart of manga, and his interactions with all the major players in the fledgling industry. It also provides a specific view into life in Japan during those years. The novel may not be appealing to everyone. One critic, Chris Mautner, found that “at its heart, A Drifting Life is the simple story of a young man discovering his talent and by extension his place in the world. It’s told in as direct and plain a manner as possible, but still full of energy and passion.”

In 2011, an ambitious Singaporean animated film called Tatsumi was made, directed by Eric Khoo, about A Drifting Life and five other stories of Tatsumi, namely Hell, Beloved Monkey, Just a Man, Good-Bye and Occupied. Khoo, besides director a comics artist in his past life, has been a big fan of Tatsumi. When the old master gave him permission to adapt A Drifting Life into an animated feature, Khoo made sure the visual style remained close to the original. The result was a critical success, as Tatsumi was Singapore’s entry for the 84th Academy Awards, i.e. the Oscars, in the category Best Foreign Language Film. The film didn’t become an actual Oscar nominee however.

As mentioned at the start of this post, sadly Tatsumi Yoshihiro is no longer among us. He lived to become 79 years old, doing what he loved to do for most of his life. His enduring legacy: a more serious kind of manga, gekiga. Nowadays, manga can be both light-hearted, comical, or dark and serious. Tatsumi pioneered this development, and the world has definitely been enriched by it.

Ennio Wolsink is a Dutch ICT-entrepreneur, avid manga reader, anime watcher, Karate black belt and Japanese in spirit. He dreams of his own manga/anime productions.

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