A DRIFTING LIFE reviewed by the Calgary Herald

Portrait of a manga artist as a very young man

The Calgary Herald    |    The Calgary Herald Staff    |    April 16, 2009

Yoshihiro Tatsumi's A Drifitng Life is a fat book, three inches thick, that covers just 15-years in the manga master's long, immensely prolific career. With such a substantial anchor, this thinly fictionalized memoir is not likely to drift away.

A reader will be happy for the detail that attends the story spun out over 855 pages. It opens a you-are-there window into the early creative life of an innovative artist whose literary graphic novels precede the appearance of the form in North America by 30 years.

Tatsumi has been dubbed the grandfather of alternative manga for adult readers, but his work is only recently becoming known outside of Japan. Three short-story collections by Tatsumi have been published in English by Drawn & Quarterly, and edited by the much younger graphic novelist Adrian Tomine, whose own work clearly has been influenced by Tatsumi.

Dark and disturbing, The Push Man & Other Stories (2005), Abandon the Old in Tokyo (2006) and Good-Bye (2008) are set in urban Japan during the difficult years of the post-war era, following the Second World War, and into the 1970s. A Drifting Life (2009), which covers the years from 1945 to 1960, is based on the now 73-year-old artist's beginnings and has a completely different atmosphere.

A Drifting Life is a portrait of the artist as a young man, a cartoon bildungsroman. It is also a multilayered story with appealing textures.

The story of a boy obsessed with manga is set against the background of the rebirth of manga, Japan's struggles to recover after bombing and defeat, the machinations of the manga publishing industry, and the creation of a new manga style, gekiga (dramatic pictures), which Tatsumi himself invented. But the pace of these pages is not slow.

Yoshihiro Tatsumi's alter ego is Hiroshi Katsumi, an ardent young cartoonist who lives in Osaka, where Tatsumi was born. Under the influence of his older brother, Hiroshi writes his first children's manga at the age of 10. Something of a prodigy, or maybe a nerd, the boy spends most of his time outside of middle school sitting inside the house, writing manga at a desk. Even, or especially, in the summertime.

His downbeat father sells products like soap and paper from door to door, and struggles to make ends meet in the miserable economy. His parents are not getting along, and his fellow-cartoonist brother suffers from pluerisy. Perhaps because of this, and competitive spirit where his brother's prize-winning cartoons are concerned, Hiroshi throws himself into writing manga like one possessed.

His work is published for the first time in 1949, when he is 13. At the sight of his published drawing, which he finds while thumbing through the magazine in a manga rental shop, "Hiroshi felt dizzy and shaky, as if blood was being drawn."

The next year, he founds the groundbreaking Children's Manga Association with six other cartoonists from Kyoto, and they decide to circulate a hand-drawn magazine. A journalist comes to interview Hiroshi and invites him and two CMA members to be part of a roundtable discussion on manga with his hero, the legendary Osama Tezuka. Joining forces with other like-minded artists to create story anthologies is a pattern Hiroshi follows for the next 10 years.

From the very beginning, Hiroshi chafes to write in the long form but the popularity of short-story manga magazines, which begin to sprout up in 1949, pulls him away. Manga begins to replace the earlier "picture story shows," which were presented in street puppet theatres to people who gathered around them. Picture puppet shows were at the height of their popularity in 1949. When television arrives, a little later, TV sets are placed where they can be watched on the street.

The texture of everyday life in Japan during the postwar era and the influence of American pop culture -- Blondie, Walt Disney, an endless stream of Japanese and American movies like Shane, hard-boiled Mickey Spillane and a drafted Elvis -- are fascinating threads to follow in Hiroshi's story. He is very taken with film, especially when he runs out of inspiration. He dreams about depicting cinematic movement within the panels of his cartoons, which would demand that he work in a longer form. Finally, he feels stymied and frustrated, aware that his work is suffering from fast production and tired of the politics of publishing.

One of A Drifting Life's consistent themes is the conflict between an artist's creative desires and the demands of the publishers who are bent on feeding the competitive manga market. The up-and-coming manga artists are under constant pressure to produce, and occasionally cooped up together in apartments that are not unlike sweat shops. The artists are not always paid what their work is worth, yet the publishers dislike having their artists work for anyone else at the same time, and try to prevent them from doing it.

Tatsumi is more understanding of the difficulties of staying in business than he is critical, but Hiroshi finds ways to get around their restrictions, like using a pen name, for example. When pressure and politics become too much, he rebels and forms the Gekiga Workshop, with other artists who want to break away from big-eyed commercial children's manga to write gritty stories with more naturalistic pictures that deal with adult relationships and themes. The artists' main publisher is adamantly opposed.

Hiroshi writes a Gekiga Manifesto, but when the workshop starts fairly quickly to fall apart, he is ready to throw in the towel.

But the end of the book, in 1960, looks forward to a new beginning. Hiroshi at 25 is a little wiser and determined to pursue his vision of gekiga as a new expressive form. Perhaps it is his anchor for a drifting life. Certainly, it is a revolutionary new art form with wide-reaching influence.

A reader can only hope that a sequel to A Drifting Life will soon be in sight somewhere on the horizon.

Adrian Tomine discovered the reclusive Tatsumi, who for many years felt like an outcast in Japan, when the younger artist was 14. About the same time he began to edit the D & Q series, interest in Tatsumi began to revive in other parts of the world. Tatsumi's work has been translated not just into English but also French, Spanish, Swedish and Polish, and his books are being reissued in Japan.

Having him in the canon of literary graphic novels is reason to celebrate.

All photos are courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly, Montreal

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