manga, Uncategorized

Black Blizzard: A look into the storm

As many of my long time readers know, I adore the author Yoshiro Tatsumi. Tatsumi was largely responsible for the move towards a more adult style of manga known as gekiga which is chronicled in his wonderful autobiography A Drifting Life. This shift in turn influenced a number of amazing creators including those who worked on Golgo 13 and Lonewolf and Cub, as well as the god of comics himself Osamu Tezuka. Black Blizzard is an excellent example of this shift towards more mature subject matter, and clearly shows the influence that film and noire literature had on Tatsumi and his story telling style during this time. While this isn’t as poignant as some of the other stories include in Drawn and Quarterly’s other collections taken from Tatsumi’s later periods, this manga clearly is distinctive and more clearly encapsulates the influence film has had on Tatsumi’s style making it stand out from his other translated releases for this reason.

The art within Black Blizzard is very interesting, because it seems so unlike the later period of Tatsumi’s work. The art reflects greater influence of the art style of Tezuka early work making it contrast Tatsumi’s later style. This isn’t to say that the art doesn’t show traits that are distinct to Tatsumi’s style, that it directly imitates Tezuka’s style or that this early work is undeveloped; clearly it is distinctive in its own interesting way. What is fascinating about the art of Black Blizzard is that it is clearly a reflection of the situation of which it was constructed, and a testament to Tatsumi’s skill. Unlike a work from a writer like Tezuka who eventually was able to have more power over his contract and work pace, Tatsumi was forced in this period to produce constantly and quickly to survive and support his family. Black Blizzard was created within a month, and yet despite this it is clear that his art is leagues better than most work, because of his ability to take cinematic qualities and translate them into his work. These qualities were inspired and influenced other great artists of the period, especially Tezuka.

Many reviews of this manga have criticized the book’s art style as crude or claim that the art is rushed, but I feel that this criticism is unwarranted. I feel that a lot of these comments are based upon Tatsumi’s later self-criticism and the conditions in which this story was written in.  While some of the qualities of the art could be seen as simplistic, and the design is very different from Tatsumi’s later artwork and Tezuka’s translated work from around period, Tatsumi’s art style in Black Blizzard works with the cinematic qualities and nature of the story. The play with light and shadow is extremely exemplary of what would be found in a classic noire film, as is the structure of the visual angles which directly imitate a Hitchcock film. When it comes to the cast at first glance the less realistic style that the characters are presented in might seem crude in comparison to some of Tatsumi’s later works, if you look though at the characters expressions careful however it becomes clear that Tatsumi has an immense ability to grasp expressive qualities. Tatsumi is able to place so much expression and variety into the faces of his cast despite the less realistic design used in this work. This is an extremely impressive accomplishment, especially if you consider that this was created in such a short period of time and how hard it is to make a cartoonish character have a strong sense of emotion. The designs used here clearly stand up to those done by others with great mastery of expression such as Tezuka, Urasawa, and Takahashi. While Tatsumi’s art style clearly improved and changed as he continued to develop, the art within this work is far from as undeveloped as many critics have claimed it to be. The art in this work definitely drew my interest and is better than at least 75% (probably more like around 90%) of the manga that is currently translated.

While the story for Black Blizzard uses a number of noire clichés and has an ending that feels rushed, it hardly matters due to the quick pacing and exciting story presented. Black Blizzard follows Susumu Yamaji a pianist who believes that he has killed a circus ringmaster in a drunken rage, after he refused to allow his daughter Saeko to become a professional singer and leave her life as a circus performer. After being arrested he is brought onto a prison train and handcuffed to a nameless hardened criminal and card shark. The train however is struck by an avalanche during a blizzard and the two end up escaping from it. The problem is though that the pianist wishes to turn himself in, whereas the criminal wishes to see his own estranged daughter and be free, both though are cuffed together.

On the one hand this story is clearly far less deep then any of Tatsumi’s later works and is far more derivative. On the other hand it clearly is influenced and carries some qualities found in great suspense works and the story is so quick that hardly has the time to really worry about depth. This work clearly takes a lot of influence from American films of the time, which is a double edged sword. On the positive side this story has wonderful pacing, especially considering the simplicity of the story. Unfortunately this comes at the expense of a major payoff within the conclusion which feels force, rushed and a bit heavy handed though it is still somewhat shocking. It might have been better if this story was less conclusive and had a more ambiguous ending, even though this wouldn’t fit with the pulp and movie style of the story as much. The dialogue is short and straight forward which is a result of Tatsumi’s style, the noire setting of the story, and the time constraints. This dialogue generally works well, but on occasion this style of conversation was a bit too simple and stilted. While the story of Black Blizzard clearly pales when compared to the stories found in works like Goodbye, Old Tokyo Abandon, and The Pushman and Other Tales and has some major problems in the conclusion and as a result of its source material, many of the stories problems forgivable due to the fast pacing of the story and the stories ability to present and pay homage to pulp works and American films.

Character wise there isn’t much to say about any of the cast. Unlike most Tatsumi works that seem to try to push a lot of characterization into a very small amount of space with a minimal amount of dialogue, this story uses more traditional pulp story telling methods. As a result it is the story and the suspense that really are most important to the work, rather than the characters backstories or personalities. Susumu the pianist is really sympathetic and given a great deal of confliction as he deals with his personal guilt and feelings of failure, and the outlaw character is made properly unpleasant and sinister while still being somewhat sympathetic, but these characters felt more like Hitchcock influenced archetypes rather than fleshed out characters. The rest of the cast really only performs story roles, all be it convincing ones that fit into the story. Oddly enough this work is definitely focused on the story, rather than Tatsumi’s usual focus upon strong characterization.

While Black Blizzard is far from Tatsumi’s best written or drawn story, I feel that often critics including Tatsumi himself have been too hard on this work. The artwork is far from as sloppy as many have stated, and in my opinion is actually fantastically cinematic, especially when comparing it overall to other creator’s works (especially modern artists) and the time frame in which it was drawn. While the story and characters clearly could have been stronger, they definitely fit well into the tradition of Noire works and it is definitely not even close to being amateurish or dull. Black Blizzard was an exciting read, and is definitely well worth owning. I would definitely recommend this as a great companion piece to Tatsumi’s wonderful autobiography A Drifting Life or to anyone looking for a fast and thrilling Noire style read.


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