In 1957, at the age of twenty-two, Yoshihiro Tatsumi left his job as a commercial comics artist to create a new style of graphic fiction. He named it gekiga, Japanese for “dramatic pictures.” Tatsumi’s new style marked a major departure from the mainstream manga style, which was dominated, then as now, by entertainment-based, mass-produced cartoons. Tatsumi’s gekiga is distinguished by its discordant placement of flat, almost crudely sketched ordinary characters within gritty, naturalistic backgrounds. The drawings alternate between impressions of mundane daily life and images of surprising violence and sex, conveying a sense of individual alienation within the rapidly changing throng of postwar Japanese society.
Tatsumi’s working-class antiheroes are frequently driven by loneliness to take risks that lead them deeper into crisis. In “The Washer,” for instance, a professional window-cleaner spies his daughter being molested through a window of the office building he’s working on and resolves to teach her a lesson; in “My Darling Monkey,” a lonely factory worker decides to free his pet monkey from the confinement of his shabby Tokyo apartment by releasing him into the monkey cage at the zoo—only to watch as the resident troop tears his companion to pieces.
In tone and style, Tatsumi’s gekiga shares an obvious kinship with the “alternative” or “literary” comics that began proliferating in North America in the mid-1980s—yet it predates that work by as much as three decdades. The stories from which the images in these pages were sleected are all set in Tokyo in the 1960s.
These days, Tatsumi lives in Tokyo, where he continues to write and draw. When asked whether he wanted to say anything to English-language readers coming to his work for the first time, he said: “I myself am a very normal person. Please do not interpret these stories as representative of the author’s personality.”