A DRIFTING LIFE reviewed by The LA Times

The date: Aug. 15, 1945. The country: Japan. Following a series of nuclear and firebomb attacks that laid waste to dozens of cities and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, Emperor Hirohito finally announced Japan's surrender in World War II, leaving his subjects to deal with the death and disease of loved ones, the rebuilding of the country's infrastructure and rampant shortages of food and medicine.

They were, to be sure, bleak times. Yet it was this horrific backdrop that set the stage for the creation of what would become a worldwide cultural force just a few decades later -- manga, or Japanese comics. Rising from the ashes of a defeated and disarmed Japan, manga hasn't just been adopted by American culture, it has continued to provide fodder for TV shows, movies, video games and books.

Now a new graphic novel-memoir seeks to shed some light on that era, chronicling the birth of an art form along with the role of one of its star players -- Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Drawn and written by the now 74-year-old legend, the brick-thick memoir "A Drifting Life" is the story of manga as seen through the eyes of an artist who has lived its entire history.

Not coincidentally, "A Drifting Life" begins the same day as Japan's surrender. Tatsumi was just 10 years old, living with his four siblings and two feuding parents in Osaka -- much of which had been wiped out by firebombs earlier that year.

Like many boys his age in a pre-television world, Tatsumi spent his days reading comics. It wasn't long before he was drawing them to escape the grim realities of his daily life, then sending them to the growing catalog of manga magazines that sprang up in the late 1940s and early '50s.

The only place Tatsumi "felt alive was in the realm of imagination." "There was no freedom in reality," the artist writes in a panel that shows nothing but a blank page. "The creative act of making something from nothing allowed him to live in an infinitely free world."

At that time, manga was mostly short-form, consisting of a few panels that featured fanciful cartoonish characters engaged in some sort of gag. And that is exactly what Tatsumi was drawing -- and getting published and paid for -- as a tween and young teenager. The pen-and-ink stylings Tatsumi uses to tell that part of his story, however, are clearly from manga's elder statesman. The clean, orderly style is the work of a fully realized artist who's spent 60 years honing his craft, and "A Drifting Life" represents the "dramatic pictures" (gekiga) for which Tatsumi is best known -- emotional and realistic renderings of a hard-knock life told from an underdog perspective. Rather than jokes and action, the emphasis is on character and narrative.

It was this ahead-of-its-time sensibility that caught the eye of a latter-day artist who shares the same sensibilities -- Adrian Tomine. The driving force behind Tatsumi's relatively recent fame in the U.S., the 34-year-old superstar of contemporary alternative American comics edited and designed "A Drifting Life."

Eleven years in the making, "A Drifting Life" is published by Drawn & Quarterly, which put out Tomine's popular Optic Nerve comics and which, at Tomine's urging, also released Tatsumi's "The Push Man and Other Stories" in 2005 and "Abandon the Old in Tokyo" in 2006. Where the earlier books featured comics from the late '60s and early '70s, "A Drifting Life" is the first Tatsumi book published in the U.S. to feature his more recent work.

As much as the book is a personal take on the formative years of manga, it's also a peek into the artist's creative process and a history lesson that shows how a transitioning postwar culture shaped manga's form and content. Tatsumi's inclusion of Japanese societal touchstones, such as the U.S. testing in the 1950s of the hydrogen bomb in the Pacific and the rise of teenage singing sensation Hibari Misora, are merely artistic representations of cultural influence. On an even deeper level, Tatsumi's entire mode of storytelling was formed by politics, sports, literature and movies.

It was "The Count of Monte Cristo," for example, that led Tatsumi to embrace the sentiment of that book's lead character -- "that all human creation progresses toward simplification and 'simplification' is refinement." It was the rioting of his fellow Japanese against the signing of a security treaty with the U.S. in 1960 that led to Tatsumi's realization that the "dramatic pictures" he was making lacked anger. And it was his reading of American comics in the '50s that taught him that "visuals should be the primary method of expression" and that "dialogue should be as abbreviated as possible."

While much is made of the influence of Mickey Spillane's crime fiction on Tatsumi's hard-boiled content, film may have had an even greater effect. Tatsumi tended to go to the movies whenever he was stuck on a story, and the cinematic techniques he observed often wound up in his comics. The fog in the 1956 French film "People of No Importance," for example, taught Tatsumi that light and shadow could be used to characterize emotion.

Indeed, one of the most striking image sequences in "A Drifting Life" involves a romantic tryst that begins with a hug, progresses to a kiss and ends with a close-up of a pair of shoes and a fallen book bag.

"A Drifting Life" is a beautiful portrait of a dark time during which Tatsumi's artistic experimentation was clearly a guiding light for a fledgling movement. Even at 800-plus pages, it seems to end too soon, stopping in 1960. One can only hope that Tatsumi pens the rest of his illustrious life story.

Carpenter is a Times staff writer.

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The story of manga, through the eyes of an artist who has lived its entire history.

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