Striking a chord
THIS collection of gekiga or “dramatic pictures” by the pioneer of the form is an incisive and often risque look at the effect of Japan’s Economic Miracle of the 1960s and 1970s on its youth. Specifically, the mushrooming of urban centres, the accompanying “entertainments” and diversions, the culture shock and adjustment crises experienced by conservatively raised youngsters thrust into the bright – frequently red – lights of the big city.
It’s not just the youths but also older folk who figure in these tales, sometimes as the root cause of some deep-seated problems, sometimes as the sympathetic focus of stories that highlight the emptiness and futility of a life without perceived purpose.
Midnight Fishermen may focus on a specific period, but its central themes of cultural disruption and social alienation, and the strengths and foibles of its characters in coping with all this, still have a strong bearing on what goes on in the present day.
The title of this anthology comes from the first story, and refers to two men who “fish” for their prospects late at night on the dimly lit streets of the city – one a gigolo, the other a con artist who strays into the path of oncoming cars and convinces the drivers it’s better if they settle with him in cash rather than report the “accident” to the cops.
One young man is doing this to accumulate enough money to escape the city; the other, apparently, as an escape from the city. Which, for such a large place, is really quite bad for hiding in.
It’s an eyebrow-raising opener to the collection, which follows up with a taut tale of a desperate gambler who seems to know no limits when it comes to putting his possessions on the line.
Cramped living conditions are the basis of several stories, where the characters constantly dream of better privacy, wide open spaces – and sometimes do get to realise those dreams, though not without a price.
The collection is full of stories of people who yearn for something more than what they have, the aspirations of youth and the greed of jaded older people.
Perhaps the most poignant tale is A Woman’s Palace, the only science fiction-themed piece in the book, where a lonely old woman is cared for by a robot nurse that is on the verge of falling apart itself. The woman’s actual situation becomes sadly clear as the tale progresses, when the “truth” of her long life is revealed.
On one hand it bears a hopeful message: no matter how meaningless we may perceive our lives to be, they still do matter to other people – no matter how strained or distant the connection. On the other hand, it is a sad portent – having been written and drawn decades ago – of something I read recently, of how Japan’s ageing population is leaving elderly folk in a situation where their family and caregivers die, leaving them alone in the world.
I must admit that this gekiga stuff is not something I can take in large doses; there’s enough drama in life already, so my comic-reading (read: escapism) tastes tend to drift toward the more ... outlandish.
Still, I breezed through Midnight Fishermen, and then went back over the next few days to re-read some of the stories; sometimes to savour them again, at other times to see if there was something I missed in the middle that made the ending seem so abrupt or opaque.
For the most part, the stories are quite relatable no matter what age you are.
There’s something about the characters here – urbanite, country boy, fish out of water, outsider, dweller on the fringe – that will strike a chord with the reader because there’s a little of most or all these types in us, I think.
According to Wikipedia, the gekiga form arose in the late 1950s and became widely adopted by so-called serious artists who did not want their work to be lumped together with the more children-oriented manga, considered to be “irresponsible” pictures.
(The Wikipedia entry compares the gekiga-manga situation to the way people eventually started using “graphic novel” rather than “comic book” to give the art form some gravitas.)
Oddly enough, Tatsumi’s inspiration was the great Osamu Tezuka, the grandfather of manga, who – according to the introduction to this collection – once delivered a scathing criticism of the aspiring artist and his compatriots’ ambition to reach out to older audiences than the juvenile market they served at that time.
He wrote an essay addressed to “new children’s manga artists” (like Tatsumi) that reminded them of the main audience for such books, and concluded: “Besides, your drawings are not good enough to withstand adult readership anyway.”
Ouch – I don’t know of many people who could bounce back from something like that. But Tatsumi stuck to his guns, and not only succeeded at his craft but blazed a trail for numerous others besides.
Midnight Fishermen is available at Kinokuniya Bookstore, Suria KLCC. For enquiries, call 03-2164 8133, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, visit kinokuniya.com/my.