BY SEAN CLARK

Author: Yoshihiro Tatsumi

2008, Drawn & Quarterly

Filed Under: Graphic Novels, Short Stories.

 

This is a collection of nine short stories told in a pre-pop-manga comic format. Penned (but not occurring) in the early 70s, these vignettes are serious, dark, and downright sad. The first things that probably come to mind to most Americans when they hear Japanese comic are probably giant robots, or cyber-ninjas, or cat-eared girls, or tentacle-rape hentai. According to the brief introduction at the beginning of this volume, those are probably closer than the themes of Tatsumi’s work to the modern Japanese reader’s consciousness as well.

Instead, these stories paint a serious and fairly grim picture of a society in flux, of a generation of postwar Japanese tethered to two different Japans, yet belonging to neither. Most of the characters in this book are aging men, survivors of World War II trying to maintain a sense of identity while navigating newfound luxuries and freedoms and simultaneously trying to adhere to traditional Japanese expectations and mores, especially those concerning gender roles.

“Hell” opens the collection with a snapshot of a Japan in transition. A photographer documenting the aftermath of Hiroshima captures a silhouette of a mother being massaged by her son burned into a wall by the atomic flash. It is picked up by newspapers, and is to become a symbol of the endurance of the Japanese spirit through tragedy. A statue is commissioned, and the photographer achieves moderate fame. When he learns the image is actually proof of a woman being murdered, he commits a murder himself to protect his secret. He enters a “personal hell” and allows himself to become someone he loathes for the sake of public honor.

Personal hell is a concept that recurs in most of the stories in this volume. The tired protagonist of “Night Falls Again” references it as he meanders between hostess bars and peep shows like a specter. The impotent Saburo in “Just a Man” decries the same personal hell. The young hostess Akemi in “Life is So Sad” copes with a similar incongruity between sense of inner self and outward actions and duties.

It is this incompatibility between increasingly self-reliant Japanese citizens and the tendrils of a culture transmogrified by American bombs that permeate this book. We see the society pulling through, growing, progressing, but Tatsumi reminds the readers of the great pains this effects. The pain manifests itself economically, sexually, and psychologically. This idea is best represented in “The Woman in the Mirror,” in which a boy living with and caring for three sisters and an infirm mother secretly cross-dresses at night and admires himself in the mirror. He is caught, shamed, and subsequently burns his house to the ground, destroying that part of himself along with it. As the story ends, we see the boy, grown to a man and caring for a wife and daughter, fully assimilated into the new Japanese culture.

In the final, titular, story Tatsumi most directly addresses the postwar effect on the lower classes of Japan.  It tells the story of a whore–very different, status-wise, from a hostess–who beds GIs in the slums. Her father constantly visits in search only of money. Like the men she beds for money, he sees her only as a means for filling a need. Whatever identity she had was lost in the blast, and indeed, it’s clear that her father also suffers from cultural displacement–he wears the hat of a Japanese soldier. The story ends not in despair but acceptance and complacency, with the girl bedding her father (that’s them on the cover), and severing all ties to the honorable, family-centric culture she surely was raised in.

Anyone interested in graphic novels or contemporary Japanese history will find these strips compelling. Tatsumi manages to convey a surprising depth of emotion without using a lot of words or elaborate art. Good-Bye deftly tells the story of an entire generation and is a masterful example of concise and poignant storytelling.

Similar Reads: Rashomon and Other Stories (Akutagawa), Buddha series (Tezuka), The Arrival (Tan)

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