Friday, June 29, 2012

Talking Tatsumi: Fallen Words

At the age of 77, it's remarkable to see just how restless Yoshihiro Tatsumi is as an artist. The father of gekiga ("dramatic pictures"), a subset of manga notable for its realism and mature subject matter, can't seem to help wanting to continue to innovate, even in the twilight of his career. There's no question that the quality of his cartooning is still masterful, with a loose but fluid line at work in depicting the characters in this series of period-piece short stories. Indeed, his book of all-new material, Fallen Words, acts as a work of comics fusion, with some very interesting source material. He combines the dark tones and harsh emotional truths of gekiga with the oral storytelling tradition known as rakugo ("fallen words"). In many respects, this innovative fusion actually goes back to his roots and the roots of modern manga itself.

Tatsumi started drawing manga as a teenager by submitting 4-panel comedy pieces to publications that catered to children and sought their material. Before manga was widely available, there were also men who used to go around in public and charge a small fee to read and re-enact popular stories of the day. Though Tatsumi quickly grew bored with doing gag strips, and those performers disappeared after the paper shortage ended, it's clear that some part of that development remained a part of his creative DNA. It's no wonder he was drawn to rakugo, a comedic and performative oral storytelling tradition that goes back many centuries and is still alive today. His task was turning these fables into visual narratives on the page, bringing out the pathos as much as he guided each story to its gag or twist ending. His light, cartoony style makes it easy to retain the humor in each piece, but his deliberate pacing adds an air of solemnity to even the most ridiculous story. That actually makes it funny, as Tatsumi the artist becomes the perfect straight man for Tatsumi the jokester.

Take "Escape of the Sparrows", which may well be the world's oldest shaggy dog story. It's a fascinating, elaborate and even elegant story about an artist with no money who manages to con himself into a stay at an inn, complete with being severed sake morning, noon and night. Tatsumi begins this story talking about a particular piece of Japanese history regarding travel: it was done either by horse or by palanquin, a sort of carriage carried by two men. Known as "the cage", the highly disreputable rough-and-tumble types who carried them were known as "cage drawers". That detail is set aside as the artist paints the innkeeper some sparrows as collateral until he returns with money. Miraculously, the sparrows fly off of the canvas every morning and eat, returning to the stillness of the painting afterwards. Tatsumi builds tension by piling on detail after detail of how the innkeeper started to grow rich thanks to the customers who wanted to witness this miracle. An older man comes by, guesses who painted the sparrows, and then notes that they are dying.  He offers to paint a branch for them to sit on so they can rest, and draws a cage around that. When the young artist returns weeks later, he is despondent. The reason he gives is the shaggy dog joke's punning punchline, a head-slapping groaner that took me completely by surprise. Like all great shaggy dog stories, it's the details between premise and punchline that make it stand out.

The other stories range between the mundane and the totally ridiculous. A spooky story featuring the spirits of a man's wife and mistress battling each other beyond the grave has another shaggy-dog joke ending, but that doesn't detract from the can-you-top-this viciousness of their jealousy. A story about a brat getting a small bit of comeuppance is entertaining not so much for the punchline (which is weak sauce) but for the way Tatsumi brings the brat to life with astonishing force. He really is the worst kid in the world, matched only by his indifferent father. "The God of Death" is a genuinely creepy story with yet another gag as a punchline--only this time the gag has fatal consequences. Not every story resonates with a non-Japanese audience; the ending of "The Innkeeper's Fortune" fell flat because the punchline (having to do with wearing sandals indoors) is something that would be obvious to a Japanese person but a bit out of the purview of Western audiences. Leading off the collection with this story (and the equally weak gag of "New Year Festival", the story about the brat) was confusing to me as a reader, because I had no idea what on earth Tatsumi was trying to do. Reading some of the background information about the history of rakugo helped, but things also became much clearer by the time I got to "Escape of the Sparrows".

There's an earthiness to these stories that made them feel quite modern. Considering that most of the characters in the book were either trying to get drunk or trying to get laid at a brothel (the source of many jokes), Tatsumi cleverly bridges the divide between cultural politeness and the realities of everyday living. The final story in the book, "Shibahama", is a bit more along the lines of an O. Henry story in its mild twist ending that sentimentally confirms that a wife's decision to fool her husband into thinking that his discovery of a walet stuffed with money was just a drunken dream was the right one. Tatsumi takes the lessons and jokes dealt at the end of each of these stories and reverse-engineers the stories into one that matches the tone and earthiness of his own stories. Oral traditions depend on the cleverness of each generation to subtly adapt and evolve their stories while retaining their essence, and Tatsumi's attention to background detail and period eccentricities is a big part of the creating the atmosphere in these stories that allows the joke to develop naturally. It also doesn't hurt that a performative art like rakugo is an inherently visual medium, making it a little easier for Tatsumi to frame his comics. Still, it's Tatsumi alone whose character design is so essential in getting across so much of the humor, allowing even a Western audience to understand most of what he was attempting without too much difficulty. More to the point, this book sees the short story master creating a coherent work that is nonetheless comprised of the short stories for which he is known. While none of the stories are directly linked to each other, they still take place in the same time, the same place and with the same sense of humor, a pitch-black kind of comedy that incorporates the lowest forms of humor with a frequently nasty view of humanity. Tatsumi's work manages to be simultaneously dark and uplifting, allowing the reader to identify with and laugh at foibles we all share.

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