Stitches in Time

The Star    |    Rizal Johan    |    April 30, 2010

Two underground manga classics have never looked better with Drawn & Quarterly’s reprint treatment.

Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Seiichi Hayashi. Who are they? The answer: Writers and artists of manga; Japanese graphic novelists; two different generations of pioneering and influential comic book writers/artists.

Back in 1956 and in a spate of creativity, Yoshihiro spent 20 days drawing the 127-page classic, Black Blizzard, which has remained largely out-of-print for decades.

The tale revolves around a fast-paced, cinematic piece of crime-storytelling about a piano player accused of murder and a career criminal cardshark. Handcuffed together, they make a daring escape during a snowstorm and their stories unfold when they seek shelter in a forest ranger’s hut.

Fifteen years later, Seiichi would make a social statement with Red Colored Elegy, a B&W work produced during 1970 and 1971 about an unmarried couple living together, leading melancholic, quiet and desperate lives.

These two very different yet beautiful pieces of work have resurfaced recently thanks to Canadian-based publisher Drawn & Quarterly. The English translations lend an American feel to the books but it feels honest as the language is delivered to suit the tone of the story rather than being a translation for translation’s sake. Indeed, there is a clear attempt to retain as much of the original artwork as possible in both books. Some word balloons, for example, were deliberately not translated on the panel (in some cases, they served as sound effects while in others, it was clear that the original artwork be retained) but mentioned as footnotes instead.

Black Blizzard has an interview with writer/artist Yoshihiro who admits that he feels rather “embarassed” about the attention received by his book. As the older artist looks back at what he did as a young man (he was 21 at the time), he finds it “conflicting” seeing it in print again. Nevertheless, Yoshihiro is grateful that after 50 years, there is still an interest in his work.

Interest in Yoshihiro’s work has steadily accumulated since his visionary short-story collections The Push Man And Other Stories, Abandon The Old In Tokyo, and Good-Bye (all championed by Adrian Tomine of Optic Nerve fame) were reprinted by Drawn & Quarterly. His acclaimed and sprawling memoir A Drifting Life, released last year, has received three nominations at the upcoming Eisner awards in July.

Red Colored Elegy, on the other hand, only has a brief bio on Seiichi at the end but the book itself is clearly semi-autobiographical. The protagonist Ichiro is a struggling comic artist whose creative desire and soul is drained and exhausted by working for a publishing company. The ‘Elegy’ in the title thus laments on the loss of freedom of expression and the rebellious nature of youth which has left the man bent, defeated and wallowing in self pity. Seiichi opens Elegy with a beautiful, heart-wrenching poem of an artist who is trying to find his way through his art and to hopefully, discover himself in the process: “My life is an open book, I live it page by page, For what I don’t know, But like a ghost in the fable, killed for nothing, I give my life to each page I draw.”

Elegy does not have a thriller-style plot like Blizzard. There are fleeting moments of introspection, depression, drunkeness, awkwardness, laughter and uncertainty between Ichiro and his girlfriend Sachiko. They are not revolutionaries or hot-headed heroes but young people trying to live life according to their own terms. Sadly, these terms are not necessarily agreeable between the two either.

From Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s graphic novel Black Blizzard.
Blizzard is a rather straightforward two-fisted crime story of a piano player Susumu who is framed for the murder of a circus ringmaster. As common with the best crime stories, fate plays a big hand here especially when Susumu is handcuffed to a criminal and their lives are intertwined more than they actually know. And it all takes place during the length of an actual blizzard. Oh, and there’s the twist in the end which pieces everything together.

While both books make great additions to your coffeetable, they also offer a glimpse to the past in the evolution of manga and the individuals who took it upon themselves to tell very honest stories, be they in the form of a genre or the abstract but deeply personal journey of adulthood.

More importantly, these books represent a testament to individual expression from a different era. Without the need of editors, assistants and other invisible hands, Yoshihiro and Seiichi made works that were instantly groundbreaking and influential at the same time. And that’s one of the best lessons these books have to offer.

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