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Graphic Novels Reviews

A Drifting Life

Writer/Artist: Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Publishers: Drawn and Quarterly
[Four Stars]

Satyajit Chetri Jul 25, 2009
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Yoshihiro Tatsumi, until a few years ago, was a name unknown to world audiences. Underrated even in his native country Japan, it was because of publisher Drawn and Quarterly’s sustained campaign to translate and bring to print the works of this visionary artist that we can see his genius first-hand. He was in part responsible for elevating Japanese comics, over the course of its evolution in the latter half of the twentieth century, from the status of disposable entertainment to a medium that could take on any genre, any mode of expression in its stride. A Drifting Life is a stunner of an achievement for Tatsumi, an 851-page work that was ten years in the making, an autobiographical look at the glory days of his career and the events that led to the Gekiga movement in Japanese comics.

The book begins with a look at the socio-economic reconstruction of Japan post-World War II, which was marked by the emergence of manga, a new cultural art form inspired by the antics of American icons such as Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop ( then at the peak of their popularity around the world). The word literally translated to “whimsical pictures,” and that was all this early manga was – a form of entertainment that catered to children and teenagers, sticking to tried and tested genres like adventure and intrigue featuring funny animals, robots and fairies,with scenarios no more complicated than the stray adaptation of popular classics and the storytelling in tune with the prevailing standards in American comics. But the lack of quality was compensated by the sheer quantity of enthusiastic creators who were taking to this new medium, and publishers who jumped on the fad to make a quick buck.

A Drifting Life begins in those pioneering years of manga, and the story unfolds through the eyes of Hiroshi Katsumi, a schoolboy and an obvious stand-in for Tatsumi, among the few names he acknowledges having changed in this autobiographical work. We can only assume, from the brutal honesty that the work displays, that he did have a brother named Okimasa who suffered from pleurisy, a sibling with whom he would have a love-hate relationship all his life, in part due to the shared passion for manga. There are details about his family, an overworked mother, a father lacking in familial responsibilities, but what matters, really, is Hiroshi’s place in the firmament of talent that was evolving around the new art-form. This is told as vignettes from his life, along with snippets from Japanese history as the decades progress.

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Katsumi is not only an avid manga reader, but spends his time trying to imitate his idols like Noburo Ooshiro and Takashi Shiga by coming up with four-panel gags himself. One of the creators who was trying out his hand at making comics at that time was a medical university student named Osamu Tezuka, who would later go on to become the acknowledged “god of manga” for his versatility and his huge body of work. Indeed, Katsumi himself is in awe of Tezuka most of his life and it shows in the early chapters, when his interest in creating manga for local publishers, as founder-member of the Children’s Manga Organization makes him come in contact with the man himself. This meeting leads to a charming sequence in the autobiography where, as he is heading home on the subway after having met his idol, he looks around and sees the train compartment filled with characters from Tezuka’s magic bag of tricks, all of cheering him on in his moment of awestruck happiness. Though Tezuka does not appear in the volume after that, his spirit pervades the book. The epilogue is in fact set at the seventh-year memorial of Tezuka’s death, with Katsumi as a much older man considering his own mortality and ruminating over his spiritual guru’s contribution to the field; he is only two years younger than Tezuka was, at the time of his death.

The aftermath of the first meeting does not just end in fan adulation, it is an interaction that gives Katsumi fodder for thought ”“ he is struck by the desire to go beyond the standard four-panel format, the itch to buck the popular trend in favour of a personal approach to creating comics, and Tezuka’s experiments with the form encourage him to follow his dream. The decision probably ensured Katsumi’s future in the industry, as publishers take to bringing out longer works, with assured page rates and a sustained growth in the industry. The ensuing chapters follow Katsumi’s interpersonal relationships with other upcoming manga writers and artists such as Takao Saito (the creator of the long-running Golgo 13 series), the happy days and the conflicts with gonzo publishers Hinomaru Bunko, and above all, his struggles with his craft. He agonises over rejection letters, stares blankly at the ceiling when faced with writers’ block, and constantly laments his lack of confidence in his own work ”“ familiar emotions for an artist in any field, and a recurring motif brought brilliantly to life throughout the book.

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Another overarching theme of the autobiography is the creation of the gekiga movement. As Katsumi and his contemporaries went about drawing and publishing manga for the market, their styles changed to incorporate sophisticated narratives, cinematic pacing and panel structures, their storytelling took on different voices, inspired by French New Wave cinema, American noir and their own filmmakers like Kurosawa and Ozu, who brought a new sensibility to Japanese period films. The stories themselves changed from the adventure stories for children that manga was associated with, to darker and more introspective stories that explored the human condition, catering to adults. In order to distinguish this new form of storytelling from the popular form, they used the name ”˜gekiga’. Indeed, a part of the story is devoted to how complicated it was to get all artists working under this new label ”“ some found it confusing, others were not convinced by the idea of distancing themselves from the manga market, and some even came up with their own names to describe their work.

A Drifting Life is required reading for not just for anyone interested in manga, but for any artist who has ever attempted to create anything in a field. It imparts many life-lessons to the novice artist ”“ the cautionary perils of oversaturating oneself and one’s audience by sticking to the familiar, the need to think ahead of the ephemeral curve of popularity and above all, the importance of working hard to be good at what you are. While these may sound like dry lessons for those uninvolved with the creative process, please rest assured ”“ the book is also a great read for the sheer pleasure of it. Tatsumi’s style does not rely on visual theatrics, and his artwork might seem deceptively over-simple at places, but his honest passion for comics makes up for these small drawbacks.

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