GOOD-BYE reviewed by The Oregonian

Yoshihiro Tatsumi's Good-Bye

The Oregonian    |    Steve Duin    |    April 19, 2008

He's right. It is a big bed. And just ten minutes earlier, his daughter Mariko was on it, pleasuring the American G.I. who's now trapped uncomfortably between them.

And that isn't even close to the most claustrophobic panel of despair that Yoshihiro Tatsumi uncovers in Good-Bye, the latest collection of his gekiga reprints from Drawn & Quarterly.

It's shortly after the war. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the surrender, when the ghostly silhouettes on the walls of abandoned buildings speak of the heaven they've lost and the hell that's still trapped inside them.

Twenty-five years after mushroom clouds, Tatsumi created these desperate stories about the immediate aftershocks of war. Despair is so thick in the air that the men and women find it almost impossible to connect. That sense of alienation rarely makes for a memorable reading experience, but Tatsumi -- who was born in Osaka in 1935 and making a living in comics from the age of 15 on -- has an unerring sense of metaphor and narrative.

There's Akemi, the bar girl who's been faithful for four years to the slob who took her virginity and, later that same night, was arrested and sent to prison. On the night before his release, she takes a docile loser home and begs him to sleep with her on the very sheets on which she lost her innocence, a ritual she hopes will save her from the degradation of life with the man who's coming home to her.

There's Saburo, a month away from his retirement, determined to blow his savings on whores and gambling so that it will not pass on to the wife and child he no longer loves. He is so seeped in bitterness and betrayal that when a young and beautiful office girl, grappling with a panic all her own, arrives at his bed, Saburo's impotence overwhelms him.

And there is the Japanese photographer who arrives in Hiroshima shortly after the bomb. In a back alley he finds, etched on a wall, the tender image of a mother and a child, the son massaging his mother's back, burned into the concrete by the blast that annihilated them. As the years pass, the photograph becomes world famous, the inspiration for poetry, films and statutes, the ultimate statement against atomic warfare.

Only then is the photographer, more famous than he deserves, approached on a city street by a stranger who tells him he got it all wrong. What he found etched on that wall was not a vignette of devotion, but a murder scene. Anxious for a life of leisure, a son had sent his friend to kill his mother, that murderous intent and the Enola Gay arriving in Hiroshima at the same hour.

This is the third collection of Tatsumi's work by Drawn & Quarterly, designed and edited by Adrian Tomine. Most of these stories were written in the early '70s, when Tatsumi was at the top of his game. As Frederik L. Schodt writes in his introduction, "Many Japanese people today probably find Tatsumi's work, with its focus on the underbelly of Japanese society, to be overly kurai, or dark and pessimistic ...

"But he is also a master of the short story format, in an era when long-form, serious manga are dominant. And he has a rare gift, shared by legendary manga artists such as Osamu Tezuka and Yoshiharu Tsuge, among others: he is absolutely original, and he is absolutely fearless in his willingness to examine what it means to be human."

So it is, in "Sky Burial," that Tatsumi writes about the Tibetans who practice sky funerals in the Himalayas, carrying a corpse up the mountain, dismembering it, then calling in the vultures with flutes made of human bones. It's a grisly ritual, as the birds pick the skeleton clean, Tatsumi notes, "but this is how, according to the Tibetans, the dead spirit soars into the sky."

In the post-war Japan of Good-Bye, the vultures are everywhere, and nothing soars beyond their reach.

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