A Drifting Life, a drifting story, a drifting reader…..
by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Drawn & Quarterly
I’ve always had a problem with Manga. You might even describe it as a fear. Not of the genre so much, more the sheer enormity of the thing. In a world of comics where I can barely keep up with the things I know about, suddenly being thrown into oceans of Manga, sans lifebelt or any familiar landmarks to swim towards always seemed just too much to cope with. Silly perhaps, but everytime I thought about getting into Manga, I found myself looking at shelf after shelf after shelf of books, multiple volumes, deeply unfamiliar styles and storylines and to be honest I turned away and ran. Occasionally I’d try the odd thing. I’ve done the classics of course; Akira, Ghost In The Shell, 2001 Nights, Adolf and a few others. But the fear was always there. Too much choice, too much to read.
Which is about where I am still. Today more than ever before I’m absolutely inundated with comics. US comics, UK comics, Euro comics, major publishers, minor publishers and just not enough time to cover them all. Life tends to get in the way of my comics reading, with all it’s glorious complexities. So the likelihood of me ever really fully exploring Manga at this stage is slim. At best, I’m a toedipper.
So what do I choose to toedip with this time? 855 pages of epic memoir using the history of Manga comics and Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s own personal history to tell a tale I don’t really recognise as Manga as I’ve always understood it. This isn’t something to toedip with, this is huge, monumental stuff. Isn’t Manga meant to be quick? Not when there’s this much depth to it and the book is thick enough inflict serious injury when dropped onto toes.
And it’s taken me a long time to read. Even more time to think about what I’m going to write about it for a review. A long time to read as it’s a huge book, both in size and scope. And a long time to review because, to be honest, I felt rather intimidated by it. Worse still, I felt intimidated and slightly at odds with all of the incredible praise that’s already been heaped on the book. More on that in a while.
(Tatsumi’s memories of childhood and the picture story shows of the time. From A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi)
A Drifting Life is an autobiographical graphic novel that takes 855 pages to cover the life of Yoshihiro Tatsumi from 1945 to 1960. Tatsumi is better known for his seminal short story collections The Push Man and Other Stories, Abandon the Old in Tokyo, and Good-Bye where he created incredibly dark fictions dealing with the human condition and it’s relationship to modern society. But I wouldn’t know that, since I’ve read none of his previous works. Instead I’ve come to Tatsumi completely without prejudice or reverence. This may have been a mistake, since A Drifting Life is a work so steeped in manga history that it really needed a very large appendix just to cover all of the various characters mentioned in it’s pages. Many of which, I’m sure are very important figures in the development of manga. It’s an omission that I feel is a mistake. Because all of the way through A Drifting Life I was left feeling I was missing important elements of the story, just because I didn’t know enough manga history to keep up.
A Drifting Life finds Tatsumi writing about his life, choosing to cast himself as the fictional Hiroshi Katsumi. And it’s far from the bleak, dark works he’s known for. Indeed it’s actually a fairly low key anecdotal affair, bordering on the breezy at times. The style is slow and relaxed, the artwork detailed, beautiful and masterfully switching between a familiar manga style and more photo-realistic portrayals of the changing times in post war Japan. Initially I found the whole thing an intoxicating mix, marvelling at the ways Tatsumi seamlessly blends together his own life and the changes in manga he witnessed whilst casting it all against a backdrop of Japans re-introduction into the world following the devastation of the second world war.
(Tatsumi analyses the US comics of the time, looking for his own solution. From A Drifting Life.)
It’s particularly interesting to one such as myself, with so little knowledge of the subject to see the development of manga from the gag panel, children’s manga of the 40s to something more like the manga I know now. But even more interesting to observe Tatsumi’s continual attempts to create something unique and intensely personal, the style he ended up describing as Gekiga (literally Dramatic Pictures – an attempt to distance his work from the children’s manga that populated the racks at the time), striving to be original in every way that he could and finding, time and time again, that his efforts led to little reward, little acclaim. His shift to the more serious work he yearned to tell is documented in detail, with us observing his thought processes as he incorporates cinematic technique, experimental panel construction and the important ideas on the way time is represented in manga that I can see form so much of what I know as modern manga. But such is the nature of Tatsumi’s Drifting Life, a life continually trying to be innovative, continually (as he saw it) blocked and sidelined with the process of getting his vision of manga realised. I suppose such is the nature of greatness, that it fails to recognise itself.
(The birth of Tatsumi’s Gekiga. From A Drifting Life.)
But after a few hundred pages the pace slows and it all becomes bogged down in the minutiae of Tatsumi’s dealings with publishers, editors, other artists and with his own attempts to create something that was manga but not manga and there were times in the middle of this huge tome that I was simply bored by it all. There’s a limit to how many times I could read about Tatsumi/Katsumi doing the same things, a limit to how many times he could have the same problems, the same conversations. Of course, this may just be the point; perhaps Tatsumi really did live his life in his work and his actual life was a quiet one of art and business and very little else – a drifting life indeed. It certainly gives the reader an insight into the daily grind and continual struggle to be creative in manga when so much time is spent dealing with getting work, chasing publishers, ensuring the book gets published and the payment comes in on time. This continues until late in the book where Tatsumi suddenly picks up the pace, blasting through the formation and dissolution of the Gekiga workshop group and bringing the book to a sudden half in 1960, as Japan falters, struggling with it’s own future and identity even as Tatsumi realises that his vision of Gekiga should continue:
(A battle cry for his own future perhaps? From A Drifting Life)
The ending is such a disappointment. After the work to get through the slow middle third with it’s in depth look at the everyday grind of manga production, it’s just as the narrative begins to take off again, with Tatsumi on the brink of something new, something he’s been working towards that we leave the story.
The worst criticism I can level at it is that I had to head off to various websites to get a fuller understanding of the real importance of Tatsumi’s Gekiga movement. The establishment of a more dramatic and realistic style arguably led to a creative explosion in manga and propelled the medium into the huge, influential force it became in Japan. But that I didn’t gather this from A Drifting Life really does point out either the incredible humility of Yoshihiro or a real failure to convey the sense of his story.
But despite the criticism I honestly think there’s much to be praised, much to enjoy, particularly if you’re more inclined towards manga or more well versed in manga than I am. The early chapters are a beautifully done personal memoir. The later sections on publishing and the creative struggle are enthralling and informative before they get bogged down in the repetition of the daily struggle with the industry. It’s a fascinating look at Tatsumi’s life, a fascinating look at the manga industry and a beautifully put together book. But it’s also self-indulgent to an almost painful degree at times. But that’s the risk you have to take with an autobiography. And on reflection, it’s just about worth the risk. It’s certainly made me want to look at some of the collections of Tatsumi’s short story work that I mentioned at the start. And that may well be praise enough for this.