Manga and Minimalism: The Shared Visions of Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Raymond Carver

Exploring the melancholy kinship between a master of manga and a master of the short story.

One is an acknowledged master of the modern short story, and the other is an influential figure in the world of alternative Japanese comics. Despite the differences in their chosen media, as well as the vast differences in their cultural backgrounds and life stories, there’s a remarkable similarity in their early work, as if for the same few years, each was trying to tell the same story, on other sides of the planet.

Tatsumi’s Trapped People

The Push Man and Other Stories is a collection of 16 manga tales written and drawn by Yoshihiro Tatsumi in 1969. Tatsumi had been publishing for almost 20 years by then (starting when he was around 14 years old), and roughly 12 years earlier had coined the term gekiga to describe his genre of manga. Gekiga meant “dramatic pictures,” and referred to a gritter, noir-influenced and often more violent type of story than the Disney-esque style that was popular in the mainstream manga of the time. (For readers unfamiliar with the Japanese comics known as manga, it has a long cultural tradition, and had been a huge business and pop-culture force since the postwar period.)

Tatsumi prepares for his audience

Looking at the first image in each story of The Push Man, there’s a striking and poetic (albeit bleak) similarity: in 14 of the 16 stories, the first panel shows the main character, with a look of troubled anticipation, as if he’s waiting for something bad to happen, but it’s also ambiguous. The character could lost in thought, or focused on work, and it’s usually a mixture of both.

In the final two stories, there’s a dramatic shift: rather than showing the main character’s face, the penultimate story shows an ominous, cryptic lump covered by a blanket, with an opening facing the reader, as if you’re looking into a tunnel. The final story shows the main character walking away, down a narrow street crowded with storefront signs, garbage cans, and buildings that jut out over the street, creating another tunnel effect.

These are stories of trapped people: the factory worker who willingly loses his hand in an industrial accident for the insurance money to give to his ungrateful wife; the film projectionist who travels from town to town with his briefcase full of porn, but whose work has left him emotionally paralyzed; the young “push-man” who must force passengers into crowded subway cars, finds himself trapped by the crowd.

“Instead of epic, ever-continuing storylines, Tatsumi’s work was comprised of compact, elliptical short stories which, like the best modern prose fiction, were simultaneously satisfying and open-ended,” writes acclaimed comic artist Adrian Tomine, who designed the Tatsumi books for Drawn and Quarterly, in his introduction to the volume. “In place of one-dimensional heroes and villains, there were real people: faces in a crowd, seemingly plucked at random and then examined down to their darkest, most private moments.”

Carver’s Submerged Population

Published in 1976, Raymond Carver’s first collection of short stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? features work that stretches back to the early 1960s, and established Carver as the leader of a renaissance of short fiction in North America. His unique style (once described by his influential editor Gordon Lish as “his sense of a peculiar bleakness”) became known as “minimalist” or “dirty realist” fiction for its Hemingway-influenced terseness of language, and its focus on finding poetry and pathos in what could be called mundane slices of life.

In possibly the best-known story in this collection (it was featured prominently in the Robert Altman film Short Cuts, with Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin as the main characters), we meet an unemployed salesman who visits his wife one evening at the diner where she waitresses. He spots two customers leering at her from behind, and making fun of her aging figure. This drives the husband to force his wife to lose weight, and when she finally does, he returns to her workplace one night. There he goads another customer into looking at her figure and tries to elicit a comment. Instead, he only draws the scorn of the man and another waitress, who asks his wife, “Who is this joker, anyway?”

Earl put on his best smile. He held it. He held it until he felt his face pulling out of shape.

The discomfort continues, with everyone seeming to wait and stare at him, until his wife finally answers:

“He’s a salesman. He’s my husband,” Doreen said at last, shrugging. Then she put the unfinished chocolate sundae in front of him and went to total up his check.

One of Carver’s friends (and another writer often grouped with the “dirty realists”), Richard Ford described Carver’s emphasis on “otherwise unnoticeable people”:

And one learned, from the story, many things: Life was this way—yes, we already knew that. But this life, these otherwise unnoticeable people’s suitability for literary expression seemed new. One also felt that a consequence of the story was seemingly to intensify life, even dignify it, and to locate in it shadowed corners and niches that needed revealing so that we readers could practice life better ourselves.

A Drifting Life in Gekiga

Born in 1935, Tatsumi grew up in Osaka Japan, and had been publishing manga since his childhood. The fourth of his books to be translated and published is A Drifting Life, in which he describes not only his personal biography, but he also provides a modern history of manga and Japanese pop culture in the postwar period, and leading up to 1960.

Tatsumi grew up in a lower-middle class family, and though his father appears to have been a hustler (possibly a philanderer), Tatsumi never struggled with addiction or any of the darker personal demons that Carver did.

Instead, Tatsumi seems to have been drawn to characters similar to Carver’s out of a sense of empathy and outrage with those “otherwise unnoticed people” who were trapped economically during the period of rapid growth that followed the war.

“Because my stories weren’t acknowledged, I felt like I was an outcast,” he says in an interview with Tomine included at the end of The Push Man. “Even though I was only drawing manga, I felt I had to be sincere in my work. So I took an interest in the working class who lived around me. I wanted to provide slice-of-life portraits in my manga.”

In an interview conducted recently in Toronto, Tatsumi spoke in more detail about the “anger and sadness” that inspired his stories:

“At that time in Japan, the country itself was getting quite wealthy and things were going really well, but just around me, there were only poor people. Japan was getting rich, but for the people around me, nothing was changing. With the bad politicians, and the situation in the political world, no matter what happened, nothing changed. So I wanted to write some work that expressed the anger and sadness of everyday citizens.”

Pure Gravy in Carver Country

Carver was born three years after Tatsumi, and grew up in Yakima, Washington. His life story has become mythological and iconic. He grew up poor, living with violence and addiction from an early age. He became a husband and father while in his teens, and struggled with alcohol until he was around forty years old. At that point, he turned his life around, quit drinking, began publishing his work, and met a new love (this was the start of his “Good Raymond” years, as he described them). For about ten years, he lived with success in art, work and love. He died in 1988.

Near the end of his life, he wrote several poems about knowing that his time was nearly up. In one, he describes those ten years as “pure gravy”:

“I’m a lucky man.

I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone

expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.”

Despite their different upbringings and cultural surroundings, Carver was drawn to his characters for reasons that sound remarkably similar to Tatsumi:

“I write stories about a submerged population, people who don’t always have someone to speak for them,” he said in one interview. “I’m sort of a witness, and, besides, that’s the life I myself lived for a long time. I don’t see myself as a spokesman but as a witness to these lives.”

Japan’s Alt-manga Godfather

Tatsumi’s work in gekiga was subversive and revolutionary to the world of manga in the 1950s and 1960s. It was also a savvy business move, as he details in A Drifting Life, as several artist friends gathered together to form a “gekiga workshop” to help market themselves to publishers.

Since then, the style has become incorporated into mainstream manga, and even Tatsumi doesn’t think it’s accurate anymore, as he describes in this interview:

“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. The term gets used but really gekiga is more like kigeki, “tragedy” so it’s more like kigekiga, “tragedy style.” Gekiga to people means sad ending, they think that something violent or awful has to happen, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Stylistically, geki means “theater” so it’s theatrical, it’s about setting scenes up and structurally moving from frame to frame so that there is a relation between the very first frame and the very last frame. It’s like a screenplay.”

Good Raymond and the Dirty Realists

The literary style known as “minimalism” or “dirty realism” (among many other names) has a rich tradition of its own. Carver is often cited as the leading figure of the group, with ties going back to Hemingway and hard-boiled writers such as Mickey Spillane (also a strong influence on Tatsumi and the other gekiga artists).

Similar to Tatsumi’s distancing of himself from the term he’s often associated with, Carver often railed against the term minimalism, as he explained in this interview:

“Critics often use the term “minimalist” when discussing my prose. But it’s a label that bothers me: it suggests the idea of a narrow vision of life, low ambitions, and limited cultural horizons. And, frankly, I don’t believe that’s my case. Sure, my writing is lean and tends to avoid any excess.”

There is an unmistakable sense of kinship among the stories of the writers that are usually grouped with Carver. Here are a few memorable lines from some writers often associated with Carver and the minimalists of the 1970s and 1980s. There’s a tone that feels equally at home with Tatsumi’s early work:

“Are you happy?” MacDonald says. “Because if you’re happy I’ll leave you alone.”

— Opening line from Ann Beattie’s story “Dwarf House,” from her 1976 debut collection Distortions

I like the way people talk, and the ways they might talk, and I adore the dance, the daily tango, the scarce movements we make toward and away from each other as we go about our ordinary lives.

— Frederick Barthelme writes in the introduction to his omnibus collection, The Law of Averages

Cleo Watkins makes invisible, overlapping rings on the table with her cup as she talks.

— Opening line from Bobbie Ann Mason’s story “Old Things,” from her 1982 debut collection Shiloh and Other Stories

“Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said. “Make it useless stuff or skip it.”

— Opening line from Amy Hempel’s story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” from her 1985 debut collection Reasons to Live

He tensed at her fingers, and then he let go a little. It was easier to let go a little.

— A line from Carver’s story “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please”

Where Osaka Came Together with Yakima

Over the course of three story collections, Tatsumi’s work grows to become even darker in tone, and also more political. Over the course of his three major story collections, Carver also grew: becoming focused more on relationships in What We Talk About We We Talk About Love, and becoming more expansive and forgiving (even hopeful) in Cathedral.

In their first collections, however, Carver and Tatsumi shared a similar vision of the world, and told stories of characters who, even if they couldn’t speak the same language, could probably identify with one another’s struggles.

“Good fiction is partly a bringing of the news from one world to another,” Carver said in his Paris Review interview.

In his book Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics, Paul Gravett described Tatsumi’s work in ways that could apply to Carver:

If there was any message in his subtle vignettes, it was that the process of life was to come to terms with despair and lack of fulfillment and to accept melancholia as the highest condition on could aspire to in a poetic world.

Again from Carver’s Paris Review interview, here’s his description of his characters. It seems to sum up his work and Tatsumi’s:

“I think most of my characters would like their actions to count for something. But at the same time they’ve reached the point–as so many people do–that they know it isn’t so. It doesn’t add up any longer. The things you once thought important or even worth dying for aren’t worth a nickel now. It’s their lives they’ve become uncomfortable with, lives they see breaking down. They’d like to set things right, but they can’t. And usually they do know it, I think, and after that they just do the best they can.”