A DRIFTING LIFE reviewed by ComicMix

Manga Friday: A Drifting Life Yoshihiro Tatsumi's massive memoir of the early days of gekiga

ComicMix    |    Andrew Wheeler    |    May 1, 2009

It’s hard, sometimes impossible, to avoid a tunnel-visioned view of the world – not to have one’s mental map of things resemble that famous Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover, with familiar things reassuringly large and the rest of the world a small, distant blur. And so everything we learn gets filtered through that initial world-view, with each fact setting itself into place like a brick and used as shorthand for huge swaths of that surrounding blur, and a few isolated facts pass for “knowledge” of something far away.

For most of us, the history of manga goes like this: Tezuka sprung, fully-formed, sometime after the war. There were other creators, but hardly anybody can remember any of them. Eventually, the shonen-shojo gulf appeared, in the ‘70s, and real manga history started, with series that we can usually remember and some that we’ve actually read. Maybe we believe that because so very little of the first generation of manga has ever been translated into English, and maybe that’s because most of those stories are utterly ephemeral and best forgotten even by the Japanese. Or maybe not – but how would we know what was good, what the artistic movements, the creators, the publishing lines and magazines were fifty years ago in a country on the other side of the world, in a language where we can’t even tell where words end?

That’s where A Drifting Life comes in. It’s another one of those bricks: isolated, yes. Specific rather than comprehensive, absolutely. Biased, certainly. But it’s the story of those years, of the early days of manga from 1945 through 1960, from a creator who was there, and telling a semi-fictionalized story of a culture, an industry and a time we knew nothing about before.

Drawn & Quarterly has published three books of Tatsumi’s work before this, three collections of his short stories from the 1969-1972 period: The Push Man and Other Stories, Abandon the Old in Tokyo, and Good-Bye. A Drifting Life comes from somewhat later in his career, though how much later isn’t clear. It’s been said that Tatsumi worked on this for more than a decade, and the epilogue – set in 1995 – has the feeling of bringing the story up to the “present day.” So, from that evidence, I surmise that Tatsumi worked on A Drifting Life from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, with serious uncertainty about both ends of that assumption. But it does look like he came to write this memoir long after the events he’s writing about, and probably at least a decade after he created the other stories we’ve seen from him.

Again, we aren’t even sure what we don’t know here; Tatsumi appears to have been a prolific manga-ka for at least thirty years before he got to A Drifting Life, but we simply don’t know enough about his work to put it into any context. It has to stand by itself, that brick that stands for a whole wall. It has hardly any context; it creates the context of the story it tells.

A Drifting Life opens in 1945, following a ten-year-old aspiring manga writer – intriguingly, either Tatsumi always uses the word “write” to describe the creation of manga, or translator Taro Nettleton and editor Adrian Tomine settled on that word at this end – with the transparent name of Hiroshi Katsumi. (I suspect the name was even more transparent in the original kanji.)

In 1945, and for the years immediately afterward, Hiroshi’s going to school and dealing with some family stress rated to his lazy, straying father, but those are just distractions: what’s important in his life is his art…though he doesn’t think of manga as art yet. He just knows he wants, desperately, to be part of that world – like a thousand wannabe writers and artists and poets and dancers and actors everywhere and everywhen. Hiroshi, though, has both the drive and the skills to succeed – his weekly entries into “postcard manga” contests start winning, first occasionally and then regularly.

A Drifting Life moves forward through Hiroshi’s life, as he goes through high school writing manga on the side, punts his college entrance exams, and starts working full-time. He meets many publishers and creators – a few older and more established, like Tezuka himself, and many of his own generation – as he gradually becomes (without ever actually telling the reader so) one of the major lights of the Osaka manga scene by the mid-50s. Katsumi is mostly lucky with his publishers; he doesn’t show any of them trying to cheat or belittle him, though his major Osaka publisher is manipulative and unhappy when he and a few others finally make the big jump to Tokyo.

As one might expect from the title, A Drifting Life is not strongly structured – its fifty or so sixteen-page chapters don’t begin or end cleanly, and the years slide by with little explicit notice of which one is passing. As Katsumi thinks to himself on the last page, “I’ve drifted along, demanding an endless dream from gekiga. And I…probably…always will….”

Gekiga is a word Tatsumi – or here Katsumi – came up with to describe the kind of stories he wanted to tell, to telegraph his higher aims. He and his fellow creators didn’t want to just tell silly stories for children, with Tezuka-esque rounded figures; they wanted to tell crime and detective stories for adults…or at least somewhat older children. Again, I know essentially nothing of the gekiga movement of the ‘50s besides what I read here – I can’t say if their stories were important in the field, or something minor on the edge. But I can tell that these young men were passionate about telling their stories and were willing to work hard to do the things they wanted to do – that’s not proof that they did good work, but it’s an essential prerequisite.

This is the only brick I have, and I’m unsure as to how much weight I can trust it to support. Tatsumi changed his own name here; are his fellow writers similarly changed? I assume – which is not always wise – that he’s using their real names, and the real names of the magazines and publishers of the time. I assume that this brick is a strong one, suitable for supporting a wall or holding up a light to shine on ‘50s manga.

A Drifting Life is captioned, off and on, as Tatsumi provides cultural touchstones – such-and-such going on with the government, which movies were popular that year, and so forth – and tells Katsumi’s story in flat tones, without emotion. The real story, and the passion, comes from the dialogue of Katsumi and the other young writers, but that doesn’t touch the narrating voice, which remains detached and cold, as if viewing these events from so far away that they’re barely discernable.

A Drifting Life is slower and more diffuse than Tatsumi’s short stories; it doesn’t have the devastating punch and clarity of his best short work. But it’s a fascinating look into an industry that the English-speaking world knows very little about, during a time when it was growing and expanding and exploring new voices. And it’s a fine addition to the shelf of stories about young artists coming into their creative strengths. I can only guess as to how much untranslated work by Tatsumi is still sitting in Japan – more than fifty years of it – and wonder at what else we might see out of that blur on the other side of the world.

Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.

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