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Interview: Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Creator of A Drifting Life and Good Bye

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Yoshihiro Tatsumi at Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2009, Toronto, Canada.

Yoshihiro Tatsumi at the Drawn & Quarterly booth at TCAF 2009.

© Deb Aoki

The Toronto Comic Arts Festival has hosted creators from Canada, the United States, Germany, France, but in 2009, it also put the spotlight on a manga legend from Japan: Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Tatsumi-sensei came to Toronto after making several high-profile appearances in New York City, all to promote his epic memoir, A Drifting Life.

A Drifting Life is the fourth graphic novel by Tatsumi published in North America by Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly, and it's by far the most ambitious of his works to arrive on our shores. Weighing in at over 800+ pages, A Drifting Life follows Tatsumi's alter-ego Hiroshi Katsumi as he finds early success as a teen entering comics contests and meeting the "godfather of manga," Osamu Tezuka. It also covers his time when he was drew gritty, realistic stories for grown-ups for the rental comics market and eventually founded the gekiga, or "dramatic pictures" movement that launched the alternative comics scene in Japan.

Tatsumi's work was published in America largely due to Adrian Tomine, a Japanese-American comics artist who discovered Tatsumi-sensei's work several years ago and advocated for its publication in North America with his publisher, Drawn & Quarterly. Tomine also edited and designed Drawn & Quarterly's editions of Tatsumi's graphic novels, including The Push-man and Other Stories, Good-Bye, Abandon the Old in Tokyo and A Drifting Life.

So when Tatsumi-sensei made his first trip to Canada to be a part of TCAF 2009, it only seemed right that he'd be interviewed by Tomine at a Friday evening event at Harbourfront Centre that preceded TCAF.

Tatsumi also did several signing events at TCAF, where he graciously (and quickly!) drew sketches in each book that was presented to him. I also caught up with him at the end of the show to ask a few follow-up questions. This Q&A is a combined transcript of Tatsumi-sensei's Friday evening chat, as introduced by TCAF co-founder Christopher Butcher, and my brief conversation with Tatsumi-sensei on Sunday.

WELCOMING TATSUMI TO TORONTO

Christopher Butcher: For the second half of our program tonight, we will be bringing in Adrian Tomine and Yoshihiro Tatsumi. They will be discussing Mr. Tatsumi’s latest work, A Drifting Life.

A personal aside: we’ve been trying to bring Mr. Tatsumi to Toronto for the better part of four years, so we’re delighted that we finally managed to bring it together and the stars aligned. What better reason to bring him here than for this work, which I just love.

Now a bit about Mr. Tatsumi: He was born in Osaka, Japan, and he got his start in comics at a very young age, doing gag strips, submitting them to contests and finding early success. He’s probably best known, especially in North America, for trying to push manga from being children’s stories to a more mature, sophisticated sort of place. He called this work "gekiga," which means "dramatic pictures," compared to manga, which is often translated as "irresponsible pictures."

He’s been called the 'grandfather of Japanese alternative comics.' It’s amazing reading his biography and seeing all of the people that he worked alongside and worked with, which are often just footnotes in the manga that has been translated in North America, as far as the volume and depth of work that has been created. And, we are just now beginning to see these works in North America. We are quite fortunate.

Mr. Tatsumi was recently named one of the winners of the prestigious Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize, for his work we’re here to discuss this evening. It’s an amazing award that says it’s one of the best manga published in Japan last year. He’s a very humble man, so he probably would not go so far as to say that, but I will: It’s the best manga I’ve read this year so far, and maybe last year as well.

This evening, we’ll be discussing A Drifting Life, and in it, Tatsumi uses his lifelong obsession with cartooning to provide a framework for an autobiographical story, but also a story of rebuilding Japan after World War II, and how the three work together to create the person that he is today. It is a masterful summation of his historic career. Please welcome Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Adrian Tomine.

EXPRESSING 'THE ANGER AND SADNESS OF EVERYDAY CITIZENS'

Yoshihiro Tatsumi: In Japanese, konbanwa! (Good evening!)

Adrian Tomine: Tatsumi-sensei, thank you for coming here. Your work has been a big inspiration to me, so it means a lot for me that you’ve allowed Drawn & Quarterly to bring your work to North America.

Yoshihiro Tatsumi: Everything is thanks to you guys, so thank you so much.

Adrian Tomine: The first three books of your works that was translated was comprised of short stories you created in the late '60s to early '70s. Can you talk about your life and working conditions at the time?

Yoshihiro Tatsumi: At that time in Japan, the country itself was getting quite wealthy and things were going really well, but just around me, there were only poor people. Japan was getting rich, but for the people around me, nothing was changing. With the bad politicians, and the situation in the political world, no matter what happened, nothing changed. So I wanted to write some work that expressed the anger and sadness of everyday citizens.

I wrote work to present something in opposition to that kind of world. I didn’t really do anything on the outside, like go out in the world and speak out. Instead, I tried to send some kind of message of protest in my work.

I wrote lots and lots of manga, but at that time, in Japan, the kind of dark work that I was doing just wasn’t really accepted. So having D&Q publish this work so many years later, and to have everyone come out for this night, it’s really amazing. I really can’t believe it’s happening. I‘m so grateful that this is happening.

'I JUST DID THE WORK THAT I WANTED TO DO'

Adrian Tomine: Can you talk briefly about what the manga industry was like when you did this work?

Yoshihiro Tatsumi: There were lots of alternative comics magazines printed on cheap paper when there was a real boom in Japanese comic magazines. If you were a popular artist, you’d get more and more pages, and become more and more popular.

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