They lived on opposite sides of the planet, at roughly the same time, and never met. In their lifetimes (one is now dead) each became an acknowledged and influential master in his chosen form of storytelling, and even though their media, social contexts and biographies were worlds apart, the early work of each artist bears striking similarities: they shared a melancholy, darkly humorous, and peculiarly bleak vision of character, story, and life.
After a lifetime in manga—from being a precocious, published artist before he was 15, to becoming known as the “godfather” of an entire style of storytelling—Yohihiro Tatsumi finally gained a significant profile in the West with the publication of four books over the past few years.
Starting in 2005, Canada’s Drawn and Quarterly published three collections of Tatsumi’s short stories, representing work from 1969 to 1972, and a massive memoir that covers his life and work in manga up to 1960.
Represent a fraction of his output, the four books shed light on a fascinating genre of manga, and reveal an avenue of storytelling with connections to the greatest modern short fiction.
Tatsumi has been called the godfather of Japan’s alternative comics, especially for his work in a genre known as gekiga. Tatsumi coined the term in the late 1950s, in order to distinguish the work he and several of his friends were creating from mainstream manga of the time. Gekiga was harder-edged, grittier, and more subversive, compared to the Disney-esque work that was popular.
“Gekiga is a term people throw around now to describe any manga with violence or eroticism or any spectacle. It’s become synonymous with spectacular. But I write manga about households and conversations, love affairs, mundane stuff that is not spectacular. I think that’s the difference,” Tatsumi has said.
In the first collection, The Push Man and Other Stories, the work bears a striking resemblance to the first short story collection of Raymond Carver, Would You Please Be Quiet, Please? Each collection tells stories of working-class people, trapped in their lives, and experiencing moments of crisis, which usually lead to a sort of illumination, but not one that results in a positive change: they are bleak and at times humorous stories of people who realize there’s no way out.
One critic’s description of Carver could just as accurately apply to Tatsumi:
“One of Mr. Carver’s great gifts is to make audible the eloquence of the apparently inarticulate. It’s not that he lends speech to his characters or talks on their behalf. He hears what they are saying when the words run out.”
Known as “the American Chekhov”, Carver was the preeminent writer of short stories in his generation, and was widely identified as the leading figure of “minimalist” writing that became popular in the 1970s and 1980s. The style of writing was also called other names, “dirty realism,” “kitchen sink realism,” and so on, and included writers such as Richard Ford, Bobbie Ann Mason, Frederick Barthelme, Ann Beattie, and many others.
Carver’s life is legendary: growing up in poverty; nearly drinking himself to death by the age of forty (his “Bad Raymond” life, as he described it); restarting his life and finding artistic success (and new love) that lasted for ten years (his “Good Raymond” life), before succumbing to lung cancer.
Stay tuned for a longer article that will explore the shared visions of Tatsumi and Carver in more detail. But until then here’s a look at their connections a la “six degrees of separation.”
Two Degrees of Tatsumi
In two different ways, there are two degrees of separation between Tatsumi and Carver (there are very likely many more ways in which they are connected, and admittedly, I’m stretching the concept of connection to include comparison by other critics). In the first way, they’re connected via acclaimed writer Haruki Murakami, while in the second, they’re connected via artist and writer Adrian Tomine.
Tatsumi to Murakami:
- Tatsumi has been compared to Murakami by the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and by famed artist and writer Chip Kidd.
- Tatsumi and Murakami worked on the same project, a recent re-translation of Roshomon and Other Stories. Murakami to Carver:
- Murakami calls Carver the most valuable teacher he ever had.
- Murakami translated Carver, and met him once.
Tatsumi to Tomine to Carver:
- Tomine, who designed the Tatsumi books for Drawn and Quarterly, has often been compared to both Tatsumi and Carver. Tomine speaks about the comparisons in this interview with The Believer.