by Susumu Katsumata
Drawn & Quarterly
Red Snow isn’t modern Manga, it’s Gekiga (literal translation “dramatic pictures“), a movement in Japanese comics that began in the 50s as a reaction to the “whimsical pictures” of Manga and attempted to portray more serious and dramatic themes.
Like many readers what I know about Gekiga I learned from Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life, the exhaustive (if somewhat disappointing) documentary exploration of the development of Gekiga. But Red Snow is the first example of Gekiga I’ve read, and based on my enjoyment of this work, it’s not going to be the last.
There’s none of the exaggerated emotions and frenetic action I usually associate with Manga here; this is a very restrained work, dealing with raw emotions and difficult lives. Red Snow is a series of short stories, produced in isolation and only collected together shortly before Katsumata’s death in 2007. But Katsumata’s stylistic and artistic themes make Red Snow a complete experience, the isolated tales contributing to a much finer whole, where characters have a seriousness behind the cartooning and realistic, believable worlds are created within very traditional Manga styles. It’s simply yet beautifully drawn, capturing both the beauty of nature and the grim daily existence of rural life.
(A quiet moment in Red Snow, full of restrained, detailed cartooning by Katsumata. From Red Snow, published by Drawn & Quarterly)
Red Snow is set in rural pre-war Japan, full of isolated unrefined communities of wandering monks, peasant farmers, and saki-makers that Katsumata resolutely portrays in a down to earth manner – his characters are grounded and defined by the dirt under their feet. These were difficult times and the people lived ordinary lives filled with hard, backbreaking work. There’s no rose tinted nostalgia for the countryside here – daily existence is unrelenting and weary.
Within this very primitive existence there’s also the gentle magic and spirituality of ancient Japan, where Kappas (water imps) and Spectors drift in and out of the very real worlds of the villagers. But these magical elements are accepted as just another part of daily life, yet another thing to deal with, something else to get in their way and prevent them eking out a living.
(Kappas causing trouble, just something else to be tolerated and overcome. From Red Snow by Susumu Katsumata, published by Drawn & Quarterly)
But it isn’t the realism or the magic that really defines Red Snow, it’s the overwhelming mood of hardship coupled with barely repressed violence – both physical and psychological – experienced by everyone, but most especially the women who face an extremely tough life of very few choices. The threat of shame, violence and raw sexuality are never far from the thoughts or actions of the people here and the undercurrent of sexual tension and aggression is presented in a simple matter of fact style – this is simply the way it was, Katsumata doesn’t judge, merely presents to the reader.
The ancestral Japan of Red Snow is a masculine, oppressive place where men, young and old are driven by desire and prone to violence and the women seemingly exist merely to suffer, tempt and frustrate. But quite often it’s the women who really have the upper hand, manipulating, struggling and prevailing alongside their menfolk – evidence of the equality of hardship perhaps.
(No rural idyll in the lives of these country folk, just simple people dealing with a difficult life however they can. From Red Snow by Susumu Katsumata, published Drawn & Quarterly)
Katsumata paints a vivid portrait of life in Red Snow, blending everyday observation with a mood of bleak futures, sexual tension and the cruel, unrelenting daily grind to make do. These short glimpses into a time gone by, suffused with moments of surreal mysticism, create something intriguing and involving, wonderfully real yet also open to interpretation on many different levels.
Red Snow has been my first Gekiga, but it wont be my last. I look forward to more of Drawn & Quarterly’s beautifully presented “dramatic pictures”.