Good-Bye. Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Drawn and Quarterly, 2008. $19.95, 208 pages.
Impotence, death, full-bodied rashes, symbolic exhibitionism. Prostitution, incest, foot fetishism and the exploitation of Hiroshima. Yoshihiro Tatsumi definitely has a singular vision of post-war Japan. It’s a bleak vision, so bleak it makes Chris Ware look like Andy Runton. In Tatsumi’s seedy world, men are perverts, Johns, and/or frustrated in love, sex and work. Women are prostitutes, strippers, and/or frustrated themselves — generally with a good helping of tears.
There’s nothing in Good-Bye that will surprise anyone who’s read either of the two previous volumes of Tatsumi’s work published by Drawn and Quarterly (The Push Man and Abandon the Old in Tokyo). Tatsumi is definitely mining, here, the same vein of deadpan despair as in those earlier volumes.
Still, it’s a rich vein, worth being mined. You couldn’t exactly call it nihilism — that would suggest a sort of editorialising that Tatsumi generally doesn’t bother with. Instead, he simply and plainly lays out the bare facts of these hopeless lives, and has his characters plod on through. Sometimes they yearn, sometimes they cry, but mostly they just endure.
I can’t think of anyone else in comics who makes comics quite like this. Ware is the obvious comparison: Ware too has a pervasive sense of despair. But he also has a sense of humour, which Tatsumi has never betrayed — unless these stories are meant to be funny, in which case Tatsumi has a sense of humour blacker than a black hole. Ware also sometimes indulges in the kitschy sentimentality of miserabilism; his depressing tableaux sometimes verge on tears-of-a-clown material. (Don’t get me wrong; I still think that Ware is one of the greatest cartoonists of all time).
Tatsumi, by contrast, generally doesn’t engage in this kind of thing. You rarely get the sense, which you sometimes get with Ware, that Tatsumi is whispering in your ear, “Look at how sad all this is.” One exception is the story in this volume, “Life is so sad”, which is every bit as (uncharacteristically) unsubtle as it sounds. But for the most part, Tatsumi’s tone is flat, unemotional — “without affect”, a psychiatrist might say.
There a few stumbles in this volume. “Life is so sad” is one of them. Another is the cod-psychoanalysis at the end of “Woman in the Mirror”, which shows Tatsumi’s understanding of queer sexuality as not much more advanced than Osamu Tezuka’s in MW. But on the whole, Good-Bye nicely rounds out a trio of works by a great cartoonist, a chronicler of life at the fringes of society and normality.
Recommended? For those with a strong emotional constitution.