Gavin Lees reviews Red Snow

Posted by on December 30th, 2009 at 9:00 AM

Susumu Katsumata; Drawn & Quarterly; 248 pp., B&W, HC, $24.95; ISBN: 978-1-897299-86-9

Red Snow

Gekiga – or “dramatic pictures”, in opposition to manga’s “whimsical pictures” – was introduced to much of the English-speaking world in 2005 with Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s The Push Man.  After three volumes of Tatsumi’s work, Drawn & Quarterly continue their gekiga renaissance with the publication of Susuma Katsumata’s Red Snow.  Like the previous releases, this is a collection of short stories from various points in the author’s career with various back-matter to put the work in context. Katumata was part of the second wave of gekiga artists in the late ’60s and so shared in the sexual liberation of that era.  This new-found freedom prompted many filmmakers of that period (notably the prolific Kaneto Shindo) to return to Japan’s history to re-examine it with modern sensibilities and so it is we find Red Snow taking much the same approach.

Set in the countryside of Katsumata’s youth, these stories tell of the relationships between people, nature and the supernatural. It’s a setting steeped heavily in tradition, spirituality and superstition.  In a way, they seem almost like a love letter to the quiet past, even though the author is decidedly cagey about his nostalgia for childhood in the interview included at the end of this book.  In fact, the past is shown as incredibly corrupt and very few of these tales have any semblance of a happy ending — they frequently end in death, loss or exile.

The sense of nostalgia rather comes through the naturalism of the art. The rural settings with their swaying bamboo and susuki make it much more visually elegant than Tatsumi’s urban decay or even the pastoral Tsuge whose dense backgrounds always gave a claustrophobic feel.  The backgrounds here, while detailed, are light and expansive, creating an incredible sense of place with a depth of field that is positively sublime.

Red Snow

There is also a sense that these stories are a celebration of spirituality – the combination of Shinto spiritism and Chinese demonology that influenced Japanese mythology – and the naive charms of old Japan.  When kappa, tanuki and assorted spirits enter the stories, it is not an instance of magical realism, but the evocation of myth and creatures that were an innate part of the old way of life.  The interactions between humans and the supernatural is simply accepted, commonplace, but nonetheless respectful. It helps us understand the simple magic of the culture that modernity all but wiped away.

Even though the culture of the ’60s allowed Katsumata more freedoms with the sexual content of his work, he uses these liberties in subversive and frequently dark ways.  Violence against women is not uncommon in his work and often tempers the sexuality.  The effect of the sight of naked women is muted by displays of abuse, or frightening predatory sexuality — the monk who is kept as a sex slave in “Pulp Novel About a Sack” being one particularly unsettling example.  It never becomes misogynistic, though as this violence and treatment of women is the source of much of the anger from the spirits and often signals their departure – a melancholic touch that shows how modernity has displaced the old way of life.

Red Snow

The rest of his storytelling is equally as bold, taking many more cues from the cinema of the period. In the relative silence of the countryside, sound effects become essential to the narrative.  These can often be jarring and insidiously creepy, like the “SQUEEK” of the wooden dolls that drives the kappa to distraction, or often just amplified natural ambience – like the “BOBOHHH” of the wind – that underscore the power of nature over rural life.

Red Snow

Many of the scene transitions also borrow devices that were favored by filmmakers like Shindo such as jump cuts, graphic matches or frenetic pans. Following a pair of fighting cats to move between locations in “Kokeshi” was an inspired choice. Not only does it add movement to the relatively quiet staging in the tale, but also underlines one of the author’s choice motifs.  He seems to love to draw cats – they appear in every story, very rarely with any overt purpose – but when we consider the folkloric connotations of the cat as a symbol of distrust, with their nocturnal activities, it adds new depth to the purpose of the tales. It shows how the outward harmony of many of the relationships is undercut by jealousies, greed and primal animalistic impulses.

Red Snow

Indeed, symbolism is frequently employed by Katsumata to great effect.  The fireflies in “Specter” with their trailing luminescence are rendered like sperm, which prefigure the rape and pregnancy to come in the tale as well as becoming representative of a motherly spirit. Without these figurative devices, most of his stories would fall apart. In fact, a few stories are left with elliptical endings, without any literal resolution.  Rather they have symbolic endings that rely on our own inferences and linger in the mind far longer than is comfortable. The final page of the tale “Red Snow” renders the entire story down to symbolic elements in an beautifully abstract way — in a tale fraught with impulsive, primal desires, it’s fitting that its final interpretation relies heavily on our own subconscious.

Red Snow is a humbling body of work.  It shows just how mature graphic storytelling had become in Japan – while the West was taking its first fumbling steps with an underground tradition and dealt with the repression of the Comics Code, the gekiga movement was transcending the bounds of literature.  Even 40 years later, Katusmata’s stories still resonate with a timeless universality.  We can only hope that D&Q will see fit to expose yet more of this necessary work to an eager Western audience.

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2 Responses to “Gavin Lees reviews Red Snow”

  1. […] Adventures (Kuriousity) Connie on vol. 1 of Princess Knight (Slightly Biased Manga) Gavin Lees on Red Snow (The Comics Journal) Erica Friedman on vol. 1 of Silent Mobius (Okazu) Jennifer Dunbar on vols. 5-8 […]

  2. […] Adventures (Kuriousity) Connie on vol. 1 of Princess Knight (Slightly Biased Manga) Gavin Lees on Red Snow (The Comics Journal) Erica Friedman on vol. 1 of Silent Mobius (Okazu) Jennifer Dunbar on vols. 5-8 […]