A DRIFTING LIFE reviewed by The National

Gladly Drawn Boy

The National    |    Kai-Ming Cha    |    May 19, 2009

In Sewer, a story by the Japanese mangaka (comic artist) Yoshihiro Tatsumi, a young sewer-cleaner finds an aborted foetus in the rubbish-filled tunnels where he works. He pushes it aside with indifference, but his co-worker searches it and finds a crucifix. “Parents’ last blessings to a child,” he says – then grabs the cross and tosses the tiny corpse back into the water. Later, when the protagonist’s girlfriend has an abortion, he secretly discards the foetus at work, only to have the same co-worker fish it out and search it. “No gold or silver on this one... Come on, let’s get to work.”

This is typical Tatsumi; working-class characters struggling through the bleak, often grotesque, landscape of postwar Japan. Tatsumi uses his characters – men who work with refuse, women in subsidised dating arrangements with American GIs, factory employees who cut off their own limbs to collect workers’ compensation – to sceptically tally the human cost of Japan’s breakneck race to modernise. His work bears little resemblance to most commercial manga (literally “whimsical pictures”), with its tales of romance, Bambi-eyed high school girls, courageous young ninjas, samurai adventure and futuristic weaponry. By focusing on the difficulties of adults in the present, Tatsumi created his own subgenre, which he called gekiga (“dramatic pictures”). It is arguably because of gekiga that manga is so ubiquitous in Japan today (though Tatsumi, a ruthlessly self-effacing man, denies any such influence). Now, in a 834-page graphic memoir, A Drifting Life, Tatsumi recounts the intertwined early years of his life, postwar Japan and manga.

He opens at the end of the Second World War, with the radio broadcast of Emperor Hirohito’s declaration of surrender. Hiroshi Katsumi, Tatsumi’s alter ego, is 10 years old. He watches, eyes wide, while the citizens of Japan bow down, prostrating themselves to their ruler’s voice (which most were hearing for the first time). The youngest boy in a family of four, Tatsumi felt the defeat sharply. His parents’ laundry business shut down and, like most Japanese families, they struggled to make ends meet working odd jobs. By the time Tatsumi was 15, he was making his own living from comics: a testament to his talent and a reflection of the rapid postwar rise of commercial manga.

Before Japan’s defeat, the country’s comics were simple mirrors of western styles: simple, single-panel cartoons in the American Art Deco mode. The content was usually political satire or propaganda. It wasn’t until the American occupation (which brought with it American comics, television shows and films) that comics began developing into the storytelling vehicles that drive the business today. Defeat and subjugation transformed Asia’s former coloniser and superpower into a poor, demoralised nation in need of industry and entertainment. It found both in manga.

The first manga was simple four-panel strips with self-contained plots that ran in the newspapers. Tatsumi loved the medium, and was submitting his own four-panel strips to various funny pages by the time he was 12. His favourite strip was Sazae-san, the popular, serialised story of a young wife who approached the challenges of post-war life (food rations, Occupation forces) with an unflagging sense of humour and optimism.

Tatsumi also loved Osamu Tezuka, now known as the founder of narrative manga. Tezuka’s aesthetic was inspired by Disney movies and Charlie Chaplin; his visual storytelling technique drew more from the cinema than the comics of old. Tatsumi encountered his work in one of Osaka’s immensely popular “book rental” shops. At these commercial lending libraries, which eventually sprang up across the country, patrons could either check books out or read them on the premises. The in-store reading fee was lower than the borrowing fee, and a culture of in-store reading quickly developed, particularly among voracious young readers with limited pocket money.

In response, an Osaka-based publishing industry sprouted to crank out material for this new market. Osaka publishers paid creators next to nothing for their work, but sometimes allowed them significant creative freedom. It was under these conditions that, in 1947, Tezuka published a 200-page manga adventure called New Treasure Island. In an age when food was rationed and most Japanese struggled to keep their homes, New Treasure Island sold 400,000 copies, mostly to rental shops, but also to regular stores. Long-form narrative manga was born.

When he was in junior high, Tatsumi was introduced to Tezuka by a journalist friend. In the scene where they meet, the reader can feel Tatsumi’s nervous admiration of the Godfather of manga; after the unrelenting pessimism of his stories, it is disarming to see Tatsumi display such sincere affection. Soon after they met, Tezuka began mentoring Tatsumi (both Osaka natives, they lived two train stops apart). In lessons at Tezuka’s house – which Tatsumi depicts as a palace rising above the surrounding gates – Tezuka helped Tatsumi with his early work and encouraged him to create long-form manga. (Years later, the gekiga of Tatsumi and his peers would inspire Tezuka to create some of his darkest, most ambitious work.)

Tatsumi wanted to follow Tezuka’s advice, but he stuck with four-panel strips for economic reasons: the old style remained more lucrative for many years, and it was not until high school that Tatsumi sold any long stories. The same was true for his second-oldest brother, Okimasa, also a mangaka. The brothers were close – and rivals in the way only close brothers can be. As children, it was Okimasa – who suffered from pleurisy, most likely caused by tuberculosis – who won awards from manga magazines, despite his lack of stamina.

After some early success, Okimasa gave up manga for health reasons (this is not mentioned in A Drifting Life). But he remained Tatsumi’s strongest supporter – and harshest critic. In the early years, he often had to remind his brother what paid the bills. “Give me a break,” he says when his brother is moving slowly. “Only established writers get writers’ block.” And: “Manga is a business. You can’t treat it as a hobby.” Okimasa was right, but Tatsumi wanted to create something different: “manga that isn’t manga”, comics that applied Tezuka’s cinematic technique to contemporary stories of human hardship – of unemployment, adultery and desperation.

But when Tatsumi and some like-minded mangaka began contributing darker narratives to rental shop magazines, parents were outraged. Manga was still largely geared to and read by children; the fear was that young innocents would be accidentally exposed to adult material. In response, Tatsumi coined the term gekiga and rallied his peers under the banner. Now their work could be set off in a different section of shops. But launching a commercial genre was no easy matter. Tatsumi had to move to Tokyo, away from the dominance of the Osaka rental shop model (which was only flexible to a point). Then he had to coax artists to join him. Publishers had to be cajoled. Somehow, everyone had to get paid. In A Drifting Life, changing manga forever is often portrayed as one big headache.

Tatsumi was soon producing some of his best gekiga (which attracted a small, devoted following, but never made him famous). From the start, he confronted the feelings of isolation, powerlessness and confusion experienced by the factory workers and window washers who facilitated Japan’s post-occupation economic growth without reaping its benefits. In Night Falls Again, a young man moves to Osaka from a farm in the countryside to work in a factory. Modern urban life – in which young woman have jobs, wear their skirts short and speak loosely of sex, and a man might declare his love to a woman in public – mystifies him. It isn’t that he disapproves; he just doesn’t know where it came from, or how to be a part of it. He spends most of his free time alone, drinking and frequenting the red-light district. “I don’t like Osaka,” he eventually confesses to himself. “But I got nowhere to go back to” – the old farm has been sold.

Even this level of verbal expression is rare – most of Tatsumi’s male protagonists say little, and their specific thoughts remain ambiguous from panel to panel (the same is generally true of Katsumi in A Drifting Life). Instead, the artist conveys their alienation by the composition of his frames. The protagonist of Abandon the Old in Tokyo, a rubbish collector, finds himself torn between the demands of his invalid mother and his girlfriend. As he tries to figure out how to be a good son and a good boyfriend at the same time (all the while wondering whether he even wants to be either), Tokyo churns in the background. By the time the story is over, several old buildings that appeared in the beginning have been demolished and replaced with sleek high rises. At work, the rubbish collector sits amidst the detritus of progress: televisions and washing machines, many of them not even broken. “People throw away any old thing,” says a co-worker.

Reading A Drifting Life, it is sometimes difficult to imagine that “Katsumi” is the same artist whose stories contain so much sadness and hostility towards recent Japanese history. Even the aesthetic approach differs from his fiction, which he illustrates in a thick, painterly style, with heavy black backgrounds; in his autobiography, the panels are more spacious, open and light. Part of the book’s relative gentleness surely stems from the fact that it essentially cuts off at 1960, before the harsh era of post-occupation modernity examined in Tatsumi’s most well-known stories. The painful realities that have occupied Tatsumi since he started making gekiga do appear, but mostly in the background. Each chapter opens with a wonderful single-panel illustration that captures the era: an America GI standing over two Japanese men, thrusting his boot forward for a shoe shine; a crowd of people crushed together in a frantic attempt to board a newly-built streetcar.

But more fundamentally, A Drifting Life is unlike Tatsumi’s fiction because it is a story of possibility: of a child discovering his world and craft. In one of the book’s most memorable scenes, Okimasa tears up several pages of Tatsumi’s work. Enraged, Tatsumi runs from the house to a field outside of town. Throwing himself on the ground and gripping the grass, he vows never to draw manga again. But as night falls and the fireflies emerge, he sits up, dry tears on his face, and loses himself in the bright magic of the evening. The vow is soon forgotten.

This feeling of beauty and promise is almost entirely absent from Tatsumi’s non-autobiographical gekiga. Instead there is a nearly unremitting, sometimes barely realistic, darkness – even in the stories set before 1960. In Good-Bye, for example, a young war widow named Mariko lives in a shack on the outskirts of town, where she prostitutes herself to an American GI, Joe. Widows had few opportunities to work after the war, and the government sanctioned “comfort zones” where American soldiers were serviced for a pittance by “fallen women”, who were inevitably disdained by the rest of society. Eventually, Joe leaves Mariko to return to his family in America. Then, in a depraved Tatsumian twist, Mariko seduces her father on one of his frequent visits to extract money from her. As he leaves her shack, his usual expression of self-pity (“It ain’t my fault we lost the war”) is replaced by something harder and more aware. “This is hell,” he says. “It’ll never stop.” The story’s closing panel shows Mariko bringing home another GI.

At the end of A Drifting Life, Tatsumi finds himself caught up in a rowdy street protest against America. The energy startles him. “That’s the element gekiga has forgotten ... anger!” This is surely a forecast of the career to come: the hundreds of unflinching accounts of silent men and bitter women with little joy in their lives. “No!” young Tatsumi exclaims, equally resolved and pained. “I’ll never be done with gekiga!”

Kai-Ming Cha is the manga editor at Publishers Weekly.

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