ComicMix | Andrew Wheeler | October 30, 2009
RED SNOW is a hit on ComicMix
From a Western perspective, it would be understandable to assume “gekiga” meant “short, depressing Japanese comics stories,” even if that’s not the most accurate definition. (Gekiga can also be long depressing Japanese comics stories, of course.) And, since the current exemplar of gekiga for those of us in the English-speaking world is Yoshihiro Tatsumi, there’s a sense that those short, depressing stories need to be set in the modern world, that gekiga is a literature of urban ennui and the dislocations of modern capitalism.
But gekiga is wider than that; Katsumata is another one of its masters, and his collection Red Snow is filled entirely with stories of a rural, pre-war Japan – but one as filled with bitter unhappiness and struggle as any badly-thrown-up Tokyo apartment building of the ‘60s. His rural landscapes have nothing of nostalgia about them; these are insular, stifling, dull little farming communities, full of equally dull and small-minded people, out in the middle of nowhere.
A few of these stories have supernatural elements, but the only creatures that appear are kappa – mischievous water spirits that fill the role of leprechauns or pixies in Japanese folklore, and were thought of as being equally as common and prosaic. The fantasy in Red Snow isn’t numinous or uplifting – it’s just yet another annoyance in a small village full of them, just one more damn thing to have to deal with. Kappa are no worse than the rich guy in town who thinks he has the right to seduce any woman around – who’s also called “kappa.”
Katsumata’s stories are earthy, encompassing the sound of a monk killing his fleas and the violent battles of young kids over minor, pointless thing. They’re similarly clear-eyed about sex, which rarely works out well for the women in these villages, with their extremely limited choices. If they’re not old women shattered by being raped as a young bride (as in “Cricket Hill”), they’re prostitutes, or unmarried women getting older but still trying to preserve their virtue, or middle-aged wives beaten by drunken husbands. (They do occasionally get some fun in – as in “The Sack,” when they trade a monk around town for favors, keeping him tied up in a sack when he’s not performing.)
The men are physically stronger, and have a bit more control over their lives, but they still don’t have a lot of hope – they’re farmers or small shopkeepers, doing the same hard work over and over again until they die. Katsumata shows many scenes of men making charcoal, or sake, or carving wood – their work might not be all of their lives, and might not be the part of their lives that they prefer, but it’s ubiquitous and never-ending.
That covers sex and death – Red Snow also touches on the third major theme of rural life: drunkenness. There’s the husband who has to get drunk to have sex with his wife – but who always gets angry and starts beating her first. There’s the sake workers in the title story, obsessed with sex even though one of the overseers insists they must remain celibate while preparing the fermentation broth – and the girl who cajoles one of them into stealing half-fermented sake yeast for her.
Katsumata doesn’t flinch from showing rural life in its nastiness and ugliness, but he doesn’t revel in it, either – these aren’t cautionary tales, or sensational ones, but matter-of-fact stories of regular people leading regular lives. They’re all just trying to get by, to have a little happiness in their lives – just like the rest of us. Most manga stories would romanticize this setting, either making it a pre-industrial paradise or a hell populated by every supernatural creature the manga-ka ever heard of. But Katsumata take a middle path – these lives are not easy, but they’re recognizable normal human lives, in real village with solidity and depth. And the stories in Red Snow may well be the closest any of us will ever come to living in a society like this. I’m certainly happy I don’t live in villages like these, but I’m also happy that Red Snow gave me a window into this now-vanished world.
Gekiga stories of Japanese rural life a hundred years ago