RIP Yoshihiro Tatsumi: A Drifting Life in Reflecting Mirrors

In March 2015, artist and gekiga manga pioneer Yoshihiro Tatsumi died of cancer at 79 yrs old. Tatsumi, who is my favourite manga artist, was an artistic force to behold with his works often depicting worlds that are frightening reflections of human capabilities and instinct.  

As an artist, Yoshihiro Tatsumi was as much a trailblazer and pioneer as Osamu Tezuka or as grandiose and vivid as Hayao Miyazaki. He was the person who coined the term “gekiga”, meaning “dramatic pictures” as an antithesis towards the Tezuka-esque manga themes of whimsy suitable for children.

Responsible for many manga collections such as “Black Blizzard”, “Fallen Words”, “Abandon the Old in Tokyo”, “The Push Man”, “Good Bye”, “Midnight Fishermen” and his autobiographic manga “A Drifting Life”, Tatsumi was a master in character creation and in storytelling.


His works differ far from any other manga I have ever seen, as the emotional weight and the devastating themes of the stories is able to move a reader’s heart and fear just by a quick glance of it.

With the dense black ink he uses to draw his real life dystopia, Tatsumi is able to properly depict the utter fiendishness of human beings through his characters and critique living conditions and economic needs in the big city, skewering the draconian expectations of Japanese society in the process.

If any of Tatsumi’s short stories were to be made into a film, it would be the most devastating thing to ever happen to his work, and would be the most devastating sight that a moviegoer would see. But any film depiction will not be capable of capturing the true, often frightening essence of the characters in his works, as much as it had been done through ink. However, it has been attempted before.

2011’s Eric Khoo film Tatsumi, is a good effort but relatively fails to convey the emotional devastation of the “Hell”, “Beloved Monkey” or “Good Bye” short stories effectively on screen.

Three anthology books, which are “Abandon the old in Tokyo”, “Good-Bye” and “the Push Man”, were how I got into Tatsumi in the first place. All three were collections of his gekiga short stories and I was immediately enamored by his drawing style and  story themes, feeling somewhat frightened at some stories due to seeing what human nature can drive a person to do in the face of desperation or temptation.


[still from the short story “Unpaid”, off the Abandon the Old in Tokyo book}

Almost every character goes through the same temptation or dilemma such as a drinking problem, going broke, psychological trauma and about their mundane and filthy lives.

Despite being a maestro of the dark arts, Tatsumi had also dabbled in comedy with his “Fallen Words” anthology book. The collection of stories set in Feudal Japan focuses more on subtle comedic puns and metaphors, albeit with his signature dark touches too. The stories in Fallen Words come off as relievingly sarcastic and darkly funny, compared with his previous works, which do not exhibit any humor at all. Set in Feudal Japan, problems regarding money and infidelity were still apparent even in those days, somehow showing that human nature does not really change at all.

His depictions of big cities, often Tokyo, are bleak, filthy, devastating and are cesspools of pessimism. One short depicts the towering skyscrapers of the world’s most populous city as reefs, making those who live beneath them bottomfeeders on the ocean floor.

The characters living in these cities succumb to the dark city atmosphere, resulting in a lack of morality in their mindsets and actions. Most of the characters behavior stem from economic desperation, as effort to make a meager living in the city. Others involve depression over financial loss and succumbing towards temptation. Usually, not many characters in his stories successfully resist temptations of money, sex, infidelity, gambling or even murder, but the city is a very hard place to become a saint.

In other words, there are no room for angels in Tatsumi’s world.


What is striking about this fact is that these kinds of people may very well be living in Japanese cities right now, probably trying to fight to live in an increasingly modernized and urbanized society.

In a New York Times obituary back in March, the writer mentioned that “Mr. Tatsumi was a shrewd observer of his national culture. He created protagonists who were mostly of the undistinguished, unheroic variety — an unhappily married corporate manager, soon to retire, already forgotten and seeking an unlikely romantic thrill; an out-of-work cartoonist who finds himself obsessed with vulgar graffiti on a restroom wall; a lonely factory worker who loses an arm”.

These visual observations are seen as critiques towards the punitive and oft-draconian Japanese social and business norms, as the reason why these anti-hero characters act the way they do.

For example, in “Abandon the Old in Tokyo”, a young man is technically held hostage by his mother, who lives sickly in his apartment and demands him to take care of her 24/7 by blackmailing him with the guilt of having the mother raise the child (albeit pitifully). The young man cannot live a life of his own, and even ditches his fiancée due to the fear of his mother, despite his not-so secret wishes to be rid of her.


[a still from the short story “Abandon the Old in Tokyo”, off the book of the same name]

A son or daughter must pledge their allegiance to their parents in the way that it can sometimes compromise on their freedom to choose their own lives. In a way, the children will be forever indebted to their parents. Tatsumi was clearly trying to depict the baffling aspects of the Japanese family structure.

It is hard to sympathize with any of the characters in that story [except maybe for the fiancée, who vows to not let the anti-hero out of her grasp, triggering his fear of indebting his life again], but a lack of sympathy may be a true, raw essence of gekiga.

What is unique about most of the lower class (young) male characters from the three books is that they all almost look the same with each other. It’s as if these men were the template for Tatsumi’s vision of the Japanese low-class male. Prostitution, gambling and death are the three main themes and sins that the men engage in, coupled with weird fetishes and working low paying jobs.

Old men, especially, are mostly perverts or those shunned by the cutthroat Japanese society.

The men are depicted as living in squalid apartments in squalid conditions and harboring squalid personalities, such as the car mechanic who became obsessed with a TV showgirl and later murdered her by cutting her brakes when she showed up to his garage with another man.

Women do not really play much centre roles in his short stories, except for in “Ami”, “My Boobs”, and in “Good Bye”. Women are often hostesses, prostitutes, mistresses or [distrustful] housewives, which are commonly seen as the most uncomfortable positions that a woman can have in Japanese society.


Children in the stories are given adult mindsets, or personalities that clash so much with adults. Character development was absent, so were proper endings.

All his stories finish off never truly resolving the problem or dilemma that the characters faced, and most of the time end on pessimistic notes.  Could this be Tatsumi’s way of showing the open-endedness of human problems?

In a way, his works function as black mirrors for a society that refuses to see its own flaws.


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