If Yoshihiro Tatsumi had been born at another time and place I think it likely he would have become a filmmaker. It's become sort of a cliché to talk about comics in cinematic terms but Tatsumi's work has more in common with the works of a whole run of filmmakers than they do with any other comics creators. I've long favored a theory in which Tatsumi's most obvious cinematic counterpart is the late, great Shohei Imamura, but this assessment hinges upon being exposed only to the three collections of the manga-ka's short works published by Drawn & Quarterly. Black Blizzard, as they say, changes everything—well, sorta.
Tatsumi's experimental long-form crime comic has a lot in common with the early genre experiments of the French New Wave filmmakers. Films such as Godard's Breathless and especially Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player originate out of a similar admiration for the crime cinema of Hollywood's golden age as well as their respective creators' refusal to blindly accept formal conventions.
Tatsumi's story of a down-at-the-heels pianist wrongly accused of murder is as much about how narrative is constructed in comics, that peculiar tension between image and text, as it is about the lives of the characters depicted. As he explains in A Drifting Life, Tatsumi in this period was heavily influenced by movies, particularly in the ways in which characters' emotional or psychological states were communicated by formal means: manipulation of light and shadow, the use of visual elements such as fog and even "camera angles" and framing.
From the story's opening pages, Tatsumi's unorthodox choices concerning panel arrangement, which functions more like montage than simple visual narrative, establish the sense of claustrophobia and menace that will dominate the story. It is interesting to consider the visual narrative of Black Blizzard in terms of its claustrophobia because it's a sort of claustrophobia that comes not from confined spaces—indeed, much of the story takes place outdoors, up in the mountains—but rather from enforced intimacy and imminent peril.
The pianist and aspiring band-leader Susumu Yamaji has been arrested for a murder that he thinks he has committed, though he is unable to recall the details of the crime due to his intoxication at the time it occurred. As he is being transported by train, presumably to stand trial for the crime, he is handcuffed to a hardened criminal, Shinpei Konta, who is also suspected of murder. When their train is derailed by an avalanche, the imposing and intimidating Shinpei decides he would rather run into the raging blizzard than risk going back to prison, leaving Susumu the choice of going along with him or losing one of his precious hands.
This is just the sort of near-cliché conceit that is common to stories of this type, but Tatsumi doesn't just rely on the artificial suspense and sympathy generated by Susumu's unfortunate circumstances. Instead, he exploits the enforced intimacy between the two characters in visual terms, highlighting the claustrophobia of their situation as well as the sense of confusion that comes from the blurring of the physical boundaries between the two characters.
Tatsumi's superb visual expression of this confused claustrophobia is illustrated in a panel early in the story. After the train derails and Shinpei decides he is going to make a run for it into the mountains, he is forced to drag a reluctant Susumu along with him. As the two trudge up the mountain in the pounding blizzard, Susumu falls in the snow, begging Shinpei to allow him to rest for a moment before continuing their escape. Just to make sure that Susumu grasps the urgency of their situation, Shinpei kicks his chain-mate square in the face. Tatsumi's framing of this moment is superb, giving us the scene roughly from Shinpei's point-of-view. But all that we see is Shinpei's massive shoe crowding out half the frame, with Susumu's foreshortened face reeling from the blow in the other half.
In a diary entry dated 23 September 1912, Franz Kafka writes of the composition of his masterful story "The Judgment" over the course of the evening of 22-23 September:
I wrote . . . from ten o'clock at night to six o'clock in the morning. I was hardly able to pull my legs out from under the desk . . . The fearful strain and joy, how the story developed before me, as if I were advancing over water . . . How everything can be said, how for everything, for the strangest fancies, there waits a great fire in which they perish and rise up again . . . Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul.
There is more than a passing similarity between Kafka's description here and Tatsumi's account of the creation of Black Blizzard over 20 days in 1956 from A Drifting Life. As Tatsumi narrates the scene, "While working on the scenes of extreme cold, Hiroshi felt so involved that he actually shivered. He'd never felt this way before." The experience unsettles the young artist, "So this is the thrill of creation . . . I had no idea." Tatsumi is also similar to Kafka in the nagging feelings of uncertainty he continued to have about his own work, feelings that were only exacerbated in the case of Black Blizzard as a result of the unorthodox techniques used in the story and the equivocal response of his more traditional-minded brother.
For all that is great about Black Blizzard, particularly when read in the context of the author's mature works from the late-sixties and early-seventies, it is without question an apprentice work. As Tatsumi himself observes to his brother in A Drifting Life, the draftsmanship is at points so sophomoric as to seem almost comical. This is most apparent in the almost laughably idealized Saeko-chan. If the sequence of events portrayed in the author's memoir is to be trusted, Black Blizzard was created by an extremely sexually naïve young man. We are some years yet from the sexually sophisticated women from Tatsumi's later stories.
All the same, Black Blizzard opens up a new facet in the gradually expanding view that American readers have of this still wildly underappreciated artist. To his much lauded mastery of such lurid, social-realist short form works as "Good-Bye," Tatsumi has added a moving and informative autobiographical work of impressive scale and now a formally experimental genre piece that demonstrates the considerable visual acuity that he already possessed at a very young age. One can only hope that there is a lot more where these came from.