GOOD-BYE reviewed by Playback:stl


PLAYBACK:stl    |    Jason Green    |    January 29, 2009

Unpredictable twists and poignant endings abound in this collection of short stories from a forgotten manga master.

You don't have to look far to find discerning comic book readers complaining about the public's misconceptions of comics as nothing but superhero comics and other "kid's stuff." Yet oddly enough, these same people who are frustrated when people can't look past the spandex and capes are usually more than happy to write off manga, the comic book's Japanese twin, as nothing more than the adventures of spiky-haired ninjas on a quest to be the best, or doe-eyed girls swept up in melodramatic romances. To be fair, a big part of that stereotype is because that's what sells here so that's most of what gets translated and published here, but the manga industry offers every bit as much variety as its American counterpart.
The thanks for that variety rests on the shoulders of creators like Yoshihiro Tatsumi, whose development of the adult genre gekiga (which translates as "dramatic pictures," a counterpoint to the term manga's "whimsical pictures") throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s kickstarted the idea of comics for adults in that country much like underground comix from creators like R. Crumb did the same in America. It says a lot about the fickleness of audiences that today Tatsumi is virtually unknown in Japan, with even manga scholar Frederik L. Schodt (who wrote this volume's introduction) admitting to knowing little about the influential author.

Fortunately, Drawn & Quarterly isn't willing to let this oversight stand. Following on the release of The Push Man and Other Stories and Abandon the Old Tokyo, Good-Bye is the Canadian publisher's third collection of short stories by Tatsumi, featuring material originally published between 1971 and 1972. Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve, Shortcomings) lends a bit of his star power to the proceedings by acting as designer, editor, and letterer of the English language edition.
Tatsumi is a master of the short story format. Allotting only 30 or so pages to each of his stories, he wastes little time in establishing his characters, nailing down their particular quirks and personal tragedies in just a handful of pages. His plots are concise but never trite, with unpredictable twists and poignant endings that encourage reflection and multiple re-readings. The art shares a deceptive simplicity common in works from that era (think Osamu Tezuka), with cartoonishly exaggerated characters, slavishly photo-referenced establishing shots, and grid layouts that allow the reader to breeze from panel to panel.

The opening tale, "Hell," sets the stage perfectly. A young photographer is sent to Hiroshima in the days after the dropping of the atomic bomb. Among the charred corpses, he finds a ghostly silhouette burned into a wall that appears to be a young man rubbing his mother's aching shoulders, his kindness forever enshrined as his final act. Several years later, the picture is being used as part of an anti-nuclear proliferation campaign when the photographer discovers its terrible secret: the image is not that of a mother and her devoted son, but the mother being murdered by one of her son's friends so the son (who survived the atomic bomb's fury) could run off with his inheritance. When the son tries to blackmail the photographer to keep his story secret, the photographer, already haunted by his experiences at Hiroshima, is stretched to the breaking point.

Many of Tatsumi's stories center around men, usually older, and usually feeling emasculated and impotent (both literally and figuratively) by their circumstances: a husband being forced into retirement who would rather blow all his money on women and horse races than see one dime go to his cold fish wife ("Just a Man"), a boy who crossdresses in secret to make up for being forced by his mother and sisters to fill the role of his dead father ("Woman in the Mirror"), the elderly philanthropist who spends his nights with hookers in knee high boots as he dreams of being trampled to death in ecstasy ("Click Click Click"). These stories don't offer a payoff in the traditional sense—the protagonists' problems are never really solved—but instead offer a pointed, poignant view into the human psyche.

Not every chapter packs the same wallop. In "Rash," an elderly man with a mysterious, intermittent rash leaves his family for life in the woods, where he learns to control his sickness and has a chance run-in with a girl after she attempts suicide. In "Night Falls Again," a creepy middle-aged man gets a lap dance, masturbates in a public park, and peeps up girls skirts. Yet neither one seems to go anywhere, offering a wide open ending that lacks the insightfulness that makes Tatsumi's best stories hit home.
Fortunately, Good-Bye hits far more than it misses, and translator Yuji Oniki (no stranger to such material, as a frequent contributor to the pages of the late-90s mature readers manga anthology Pulp) perfectly encapsulates the book's powerful moments. The title story that closes out the collection highlights Tatsumi's strengths as a storyteller, taking just 16 pages to paint a vivid portrait of America's effect on post-War Japan in the tale of an American G.I. and the Japanese lover he leaves behind. The story takes a twist toward the disturbing in its final pages, closing with the girl's father remarking grimly, "This is Hell. It'll never stop." It ends the book as it began, with a feeling that's equal parts unsettling and captivating.

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