by Chris MaGee
Back in January the news broke that one of Japan's manga legends would be making a rare trip to Toronto and after a very long wait that much anticipated visit happened. The Japan Foundation and the folks at The Beguiling, Toronto's premiere indie comic store welcomed 73-year-old artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi (above right), the man who many believe to be the originator of gekiga, or "dramatic pictures", the rough equivalent of North America's graphic novels, to the Japan Foundation Toronto's offices on Bloor Street West. The visit marked a dual occasion: The first publication in English of Tatsumi's 840-page autobiographical manga, "A Drifting Life" by Montreal comic publisher Drawn & Quarterly, and this year's Toronto Comic Arts Festival.
"A Drifting Life" follows the life of Tasumi's manga alter ego Hiroshi Katsumi who over 15 years, from the end of the Second World War in 1945 right through to 1960, establishes himself as a successful manga artist. Tatsumi, whose other works include "The Push Man", "Abandon The Old In Tokyo", and "Good Bye", took an entire decade to commit his story to paper. After a brief introduction by Japan Foundation Toronto director Masayuki Suzuki and The Beguiling's Chris Butcher the unassuming and soft-spoken Tatsumi took to the podium and with the help of a translator almost immediately began to discuss this monumental work and the career that it chronicles with the crowd of dozens of comic book and Japanese culture fans that packed the event.
Some of the highlights of the Q&A? Tatsumi's admission that he never really considered the possibilities of fame and money when he began his manga career over 40 years ago, in fact he quipped that, "when you enter the world of manga you join the ranks of the poor." His main reason for drawing manga? "Just because I loved manga so much."
In response to why he thought American comics never gained the same widespread popularity in Japan as its native manga Tatsumi had a very pragmatic answer: American comics are literally backwards. As fans of manga know Japanese publications have the binding on the right edge of the book as opposed to what we're used to with the binding being on the left edge. When American comics were imported to Japan Tatsumi observed that "suddenly everyone was left-handed," a less than ideal situation.
Tatsumi's lengthiest answer came in response to a question from a gentleman in the audience who wanted a better definition of gekiga and how they differ from regular manga. Tatsumi guided the audience through the early days of manga in Japan when they were drawn for rental shops where patrons could borrow manga in the same way we can rent DVDs from a video store today. The competition that existed between the artists who drew these rental manga was fierce and spurred them on to addressing more and more personal and adult subject matters. The only problem was that the rental shops would put them on the shelf side by side with manga for children, so it became more and more common that kids would get their hands on material that was far too mature for them. The solution was that the owners of the rental shops designated these adult-themed manga gekiga to red flag them for their customers. Tatsumi went on to explain that while contemporary gekiga have become synonymous with violence and perversion the gekiga that he and other artists established in the 50's were about "telling stories from their hearts." He stressed this distinction by saying that, "while gekiga is manga, manga is not gekiga."
After the Q&A wrapped fans got an amazing treat. Of course people lined up with their newly purchased copies of "A Drifting Life" for Tatsumi to autograph, but no one was expecting him to do individual drawings in each and every copy set before him for over an hour. Now, that's class.
For anyone in Toronto interested in Yoshihiro Tatsumi's "A Drifting Life" then make sure to head to comic shops like The Beguiling and Silver Snail to help support local businesses. For those outside the city and around the world you can check out Tatsumi's gekiga here.