*A Drifting Life — Best of 2009

A Drifting Life is impressive just in its size: 850+ pages about Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s life as a manga creator, from post-World War II Japan through 1960. (Some of Tatsumi’s other works, such as The Push Man and Other Stories and Abandon the Old in Tokyo, are also available in English from Drawn & Quarterly. This volume is flipped, so it can be read from left to right.) In fact, it’s intimidating. All the more so when you realize it’s already considered one of the best graphic novels of the year. I think part of that recognition is just amazement at its size and scope.

A Drifting Life cover
A Drifting Life
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You know this aims to be more than just an autobiography when you see the first chapter title, “The Birth of Manga”. Tatsumi uses his experiences, first as a reader, then an aspiring cartoonist who becomes a professional, to chart the development of gekiga manga. That term refers to a darker approach to comics, beginning in the mid-1950s, focused on the adult audience and influenced by such post-war pop culture elements as Mickey Spillane. (Although the book is a memoir, Tatsumi’s lead character is named Hiroshi — I’m not sure why.)

Tatsumi and his sickly brother start as fans of the work of Osamu Tezuka, the artist known as the “king of manga”. Inspired by their reading, and encouraged by the many submission contests run by the manga magazines, the boys draw comics and send their work in in the hopes of being chosen. Meanwhile, their parents fight, and the family is breaking down.

To escape, Hiroshi spends more time with his art, determined to get it noticed. He achieves small successes, which create jealousy on the part of his brother. The artist also struggles with the conflict between trying to create more significant art or turning out pieces that sell quickly, a continuing theme. While still in high school, he creates longer works that are selected for publication.

The art style comes from an older manga tradition, with simple, cartoony faces that carry a range of emotion. (There are some art samples in this review by Chris Mautner.) When establishing period or setting, there’s more detail, with more crosshatching to work as shading. Hiroshi is also fascinated by film, taking in whatever movies he could watch and becoming influenced by trying to translate cinematic techniques to paper.

This story is easier to grasp the more you know about manga or Japanese history. It can be frustrating not having examples of the works he’s writing about. Lists of artists’ names or manga titles don’t mean much to American readers, and so we don’t understand the meaning of the references. The same goes for the historical incidents and markers that pepper the work in order to set the context. Still, the through-line of an artist’s career and development is understandable, and the family moments are such that anyone can relate to them. Later, his struggles there are replaced with worries over the health of his publishers, and the concerns are similar to those experienced today. Tatsumi’s adoration of Tezuka fits in with what many readers know of his significance to the art form. Many artists have a moment of meeting a beloved inspiration, with deep memories of the power of the encounter.

Because of the lack of familiarity, this isn’t a reliable manga history. It’s not until halfway through the book that the idea of the trend-setting anthology, Shadow, is created, leading to more follow-on publications. The format allows for different ideas, but the short story length is restrictive, and Hiroshi seeks to experiment further. He winds up spending hot days living in an upstairs room with three other creators, doing nothing but making manga … when they aren’t distracting themselves. Slacking can be contagious, and his work is complicated by what he knows about his publisher’s difficulties.

Key points, like naming “gekiga” (which doesn’t happen until over 600 pages in, with adoption by others on page 720), can sometimes get lost in a flood of overwhelming detail, such that it’s hard to determine what is really important. Tatsumi focuses on moving into a new apartment and the problems in his new neighborhood for several pages, but deciding to label his work “gekiga” happens offscreen. One decision, to not work for a particular publisher when invited, is followed by a panel that says, “Later he would come to regret this,” but nothing more is seen of this regret. He shows in length experiences that don’t mean much, looking at the medium overall, or that could have been compressed; in short, it’s a very personal recollection, idiosyncratic at times. The title is suggestive of the way the storytelling can meander, of how lives don’t necessarily follow coherent dramatic paths.

To cover only 15 years in so many pages tells you that Tatsumi isn’t shy about delving into detail. It takes him over 250 pages just to graduate from high school, although he was also drawing during that time. I would have rather seen a bit less, with more of his later life included. The book ends with the apparent dissolution of the gekiga movement, followed by a new energy on the part of Hiroshi, but we don’t know what, if anything, he did with it. We have to rely on knowledge outside the work to understand the significance of the moment.

I was also sometimes uncertain as to the depth of the emotion the lead character was feeling. The obvious reactions were there — determination, for example, to finish a work for a publisher — but the more subtler feelings were missing. An epilogue shows Hiroshi attending a gathering held on the anniversary of Tezuka’s death. That’s followed by a section of translations of the sound effects and texts included in the work.

All that said, the book is still an impressive work in its scope, and one worth reading. A PDF preview is available at the publisher’s website, or there are pages online.

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5 Comments

  1. The use of a pseudonym for the main character is probably connected to Japan having an unusually strong tradition of lightly-fictionalised autobiographical stories (known as “I-novels”), which this fits into.

  2. Oh, neat, didn’t know that. Thanks for the information!

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