Lovely review of RED SNOW by The Comics Reporter

Flipped!: David Welsh on Susumu Katsumata's Red Snow

The Comics Reporter    |    David P. Welsh    |    December 7, 2009

While many of the comics in the gekiga category, at least the ones available in English, might fairly be described as gritty, Drawn & Quarterly has offered a new example that's earthy in every regard. Susumu Katsumata's wonderful collection of short stories, Red Snow, examines the lives of people who live off the land. Katsumata renders this world with vigor and authority and without condescension, which is more than enough to move it to the front of the pack of comics that chronicle a rural experience.

Katsumata doesn't merely succeed by comparison. Though his stories share a pre-modern, agrarian setting, they vary in tone from sentimental to scathing. Red Snow is a collection in retrospect, first published in Japan in 2005 by Seirinkogeisha. These tales, originally published in the legendary alt-comics anthology Garo, weren't conceived to contribute to a larger whole, and, if they do, it's the opportunity to admire a gifted, perhaps under-appreciated cartoonist.

I found Katsumata's style of illustration to be wonderfully blunt. Characters are rendered with cartoonish charm but also with sturdiness and force. They aren't merely cute; they suit the lives they lead. As in the work of Osamu Tezuka and the legion of creators he influenced, the exaggerations of their visual conception don't limit their ability to function in dramatic contexts. Brutal exchanges aren't less shocking, and sex doesn't lose its erotic charge. Katsumata can create a fully realized world, rural but not bucolic with a population that's stylized but real.

The stories in Red Snow differ from the bulk of translated gekiga in that they traffic in magical realism, with an emphasis on the realism. Mixed among the brewers, farmers and lumberjacks are figures from folklore like the water imps known as kappa. Their presence doesn't derail the narrative; they really just another part of the population with their own idiosyncrasies and issues. Their oddness contributes to the sense of time and place; it makes the characters' belief in the mysteries around them concrete instead of quaint.

They also differ in the shared focus on both male and female characters. Much as I admire the bleak short stories of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, they do strike me as dominated by the male perspective. The women in Katsumata's stories are much more likely to be equal partners in drama. They work, they yearn, they struggle, they fail, just like their husbands, fathers, neighbors and lovers. "Pulp Novel about a Sack," a sly, shocking look at the women left to their own devices when the men go off to sea, is one of my particular favorites in the collection. It encapsulates so many of the things I like about Katsumata's approach -- the earthiness of the subject matter, the resourcefulness of his characters, and the frankness of his storytelling.

In the tradition of the publisher, Red Snow comes in a very handsome package. The hardcover volume has an attractive design, and the contents have been flipped to left-to-right orientation with Drawn & Quarterly's usual care. Taro Nettleton's translation flows nicely, and translated sound effects are incorporated neatly into the panels, presumably by font designer Rich Tommaso. While neither is essential to appreciating Katsumata's comics, the two text pieces included here (an interview conducted by the editor of the Seirinkogeisha's 2005 version and an appreciative overview that appeared in a South Korean comics magazine) are welcome enhancements.

Drawn & Quarterly isn't a manga publisher in the way that Viz and Del Rey are. Drawn & Quarterly's mission is apparently to publish excellent comics of any provenance, so perhaps the fact that they've published two of 2009's best translated comics from Japan (this one and Tatsumi's A Drifting Life) is just a natural result of their overarching intent. Beyond the quality of the individual books, I very much appreciate the way the publisher is incrementally introducing gekiga to English-reading audiences, focusing first on its founder, Tatsumi, and subsequently unveiling other examples of the category. Last year's Red-Colored Elegy by Seiichi Hayashi offered a long-form example that, while not as bracing today as it must have been when it was first published, did reveal what must have been an essential building block of all of the illustrated tales of disaffected youth that have followed. Red Snow is an engrossing, vibrant next step in the gekiga education that Drawn & Quarterly is offering, giving a further example of the range of experiences that the category explored.

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