A DRIFTNG LIFE reviewed by Newsarama

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Newsarama    |    Troy Brownfield    |    March 31, 2009

A Drifting Life
Written & Illustrated by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Translated by Taro Nettleton
Edited and Designed by Adrian Tomine
Published by Drawn & Quarterly
Reviewed by Michael C Lorah

After publishing three consecutive collections of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s groundbreaking gekiga short stories from the late 1960s and early 1970s, Drawn & Quarterly and Adrian Tomine have shifted gears, bringing us a very recent book. A Drifting Life is not only new, but it’s a massive tonal shift from Tatsumi’s previous American work. No short stories here, readers. This is 840+ pages of Tatsumi’s autobiography.

Honestly, it’s barely even an autobiography in the ways that most readers might expect. You’ll learn virtually nothing about Tatsumi’s personal life – oh, you’ll get to meet his parents and siblings, and witness some of his relationships with them (particularly his brother, a fellow manga creator), but the core of A Drifting Life is really the parallel development of Tatsumi as a manga artist and the growth of the manga industry itself. From the time he started submitting to manga magazines while still a teen until the book’s ending in 1960, when Tatsumi is established in Tokyo, struggling to balance his workload and determined to dedicate himself to developing Gekiga, his own brand of manga for adults, his life is completely and totally intertwined with the artform he so profoundly loves (and, consequently, the industry that promotes it).

It’s not nearly as oppressive as many of the short stories in previous Tatsumi collections; however, A Drifting Life does have some moments of turmoil and struggle. Like our own American comics industry, the manga business had its share of duplicitous dealers during its formative years, and Tatsumi was witness to many of those issues. What sets his telling apart is his ability to humanize every person he encounters along the way. Business people who burn him also provide him with opportunities on other occasions. Tatsumi offers balanced portrayals all around, although you’ll all certainly create your own judgments of their actions.

I’m of two minds about Tatsumi’s decision to change the names of many of the people in his story. Changing many of the players’ names, including his own, Tatsumi makes the story more about the industry and his relationship to it. On the other hand, I often found myself trying to figure out (though my knowledge of manga isn’t strong enough to make my guesses very good) if I could determine who the real people behind the names were. And of course, it’s slightly peculiar when some persons, Osamu Tezuka most notably, are referred to by their actual names. It’s not really a big thing, but it may be slightly distracting to some readers.

Artistically, Tatsumi’s style doesn’t seem to have changed a great deal in nearly forty years since “The Push Man.” His layouts are stronger and the characters more distinct and consistent, but the basic style – the loose, open figures, the cartoony faces and the real-world grounding – remain hallmarks. It’s a more assured look, confident and stronger, but still recognizably Tatsumi.

Previous Yoshihiro Tatsumi books have established the Japanese legend as a powerful and singular comics voice among North American readers, and his magnificent opus A Drifting Life is likely to add another considerable chapter to that building popularity. Readers of manga, of autobiography, of comics history, or of humanity should seek it out right away.

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