The 1950s were an amazing period for Japanese art and literature. With the downfall of the old cultural order following the end of World War II, the Japanese enjoyed enhanced freedoms of expression and new avenues of creativity previously denied to them under war-era censors.
Coupled with the massive influx of Western culture as a result of American occupation, music, movies, and print changed and expanded. Japanese comics, according the scholar Frederik L. Schodt, were just one of the many mediums that underwent what some have called a Golden Age. During this period creators like the great Osamu Tezuka published some of their most enduring works, and without the social crusaders and senate hearings that damaged their American counterparts, manga publishers in Japan enjoyed a level of success and social acceptance that has endured to the present day.
Yoshihiro Tatsumi, author of darkly innovative Pushman and Other Stories, was just one of the many manga creators to get his start in the industry during the booming days of the ‘50s. Drawn & Quarterly has recently published, for the first time in English, one of Yoshihiro’s early breakthrough works Black Blizzard. Originally published in 1956, the art is classic manga, but the plot would be easily be at home in any hard-boiled pulp magazine. The result of this convergence of narrative and visual styles that is an excellent example of the raw talent that emerged from the golden age of Japanese comics and the enduring readability of a good old crime yarn.
Black Blizzard follows two convicts who are handcuffed together and on the run from the police. One is a hardened criminal who just wants to stay out of jail and see his daughter one more time, the other is a young musician accused of murdering of man but having no memory of the event. After surviving a train crash the two flee into the mountains and, while telling their respective stories, ponder the best way to free themselves from the chains that connect them. Tatsumi captures the nervous tension in a way strongly reminiscent of some of the more ghoulish EC Comics as the two fugitives debate which one should lose a hand so that they can both be free. There is, naturally, a surprise twist at the end that reconciles the stories of both characters and gives the book a satisfying conclusion.
There are several things that stand out about this particular story. The first is that one can begin to understand how manga has become such an entrenched medium in the world today. The art, while simplistic, conveys a depth and nuance that engages the reader during even the most mundane of events. The range of emotions, the character archetypes, are all implied without a lot of unwieldy exposition or narrative declarations. Moreover, despite the fact that it is over 50 years old, Black Blizzard is still eminently enjoyable in a way that so many of dated classics of that era are not.
Yoshihiro and the book identify Mickey Spillane and Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo as having influenced and inspired Black Blizzard, in addition to other Japanese creators. From the historical perspective this makes the book not just a good read, but an important artifact.
The occupation of Japan represents a fascinating period in the cultural history of the world. While there have been similar situations, no other event in history precisely emulates the strange era of cross-cultural collaboration and exchange that took place when the United States, for good of for ill, forced open the cultural stasis that Japan’s leaders had imposed on the nation and created a symbiotic relationship that endures to this day in Japan’s Elvis obsessions and love of American kitsch.
This exchange, examined by many historians—including John W. Dower whose chronicle of this era, Embracing Defeat, won the Pulitzer Prize—is exactly the conditions under which Black Blizzard emerged. Consequently, a whole new dimension of significance is added to the text.
Whether one is interested in history, a lover of good crime stories, or just a manga fanatic, Black Blizzard will please. Including an interview with art comic icon, Adrian Tomine, the latest addition of Drawn and Quarterly’s catalog is a not to be missed gem from a classic era comics.