Continuing their mission to celebrate comics masters of the past century, Drawn and Quarterly have now brought Susumu Katsumata’s award-winning short story collection Red Snow to North America in a tastefully designed and thoughtfully translated release.
Originally published in Japan in 2006 where it won Katsumata the prestigious 35th Japanese Cartoonists Association Grand Prize, Red Snow is a collection of often poignant, elemental, almost fable-like short stories set in the beautiful but complex and brutal world of rural Japan. Katsumata’s work is gekiga manga, which can be most easily (but perhaps not entirely faithfully) described as a more sophisticated form of manga intended for adult audiences, the equivalent of the “graphic novel” tag used here in North America (it’s probably best to just look this short article about gekiga in wikipedia).
Though the settings are loosely drawn from Katusmata’s youth growing up in the countryside in the 1940s and ’50s, time and place seem to be stuck in a pre-industrial fiefdom of indentured workers who never own the land they work on. Small entrepreneurs live hand to mouth and must work very hard for their daily bread – fishermen, local woodcarvers, attendants serving the naturally occurring hot springs, and the dark presence of prostitution all make appearances. Katsumata’s balance of primal setting and complex characterizations repeatedly draw attention to pressure exerted by the harsh environment on the roles people play in their emotional relationships.
For example, in “Echo,” we meet a character who is grateful to have neighbours to talk to and the possibility of a young man to marry his daughter – not surprising, considering he hadn’t seen anyone else for the previous six months. In “Red Snow,” the collection’s final story, we learn of a seasoned sake worker who as a youth fell into one of the giant vats of brine and almost died, an accident that prevented him from ever rising to the post of overseer.
Throughout the stories, the presence of spiritual or supernatural characters – a wronged soul returned from the dead, the occasional talking animal providing commentary – bring a sense of ethical balance to an otherwise unfair human system .
Another common theme is the confinement of women, and the constantly changing grey areas among the roles of employee-servant-caregiver and prostitute. In the first story, “Mulberries,” a village boy meets an indifferent and unrepentant village girl stealing mulberries from a neighbour’s bush. Her indifference is revealed to not be a typical young girl’s coyness but a respite from the much more adult problem she is grappling with – her mother is pressuring her to begin prostituting herself at the spa. I was reminded of Alice Munro’s short story “Thanks for The Ride,” where the darkness of impending adulthood permeates otherwise innocent social decorum.
Katsumata’s ability to blend different cartooning styles as part of the text – one panel is cartoony, the next is a beautiful vista of a mountain side, a third is in photo-reference – is very effective and evocative.
Like all good short stories, the works become deeper on multiple readings, with earlier images, actions and conversations taking on new meanings. I found myself re-examining what I thought each story was trying to say. There are poetic passages throughout, and the downtrodden characters make ethical choices against all odds. In Katsumata’s world where there is injustice there is an understanding, and a kindness as well.