Reviewby Casey Brienza, Jul 4th 2009
A Drifting Life
Hiroshi Katsumi is coming of age in postwar Japan. Tight finance and his brother's chronic illness lead him to pursue a means of escape—the popular medium of manga. Before long, he is drawing his own and submitting his work to contests, and as Japan rises from the ashes, Hiroshi comes of age and devotes himself to a career of drawing manga. And though quite beholden to his publishers, and never able to pursue his ambitions for longer works, he is able to push the boundaries of the medium with new visual and narrative techniques. He and his cohort of young male artists eventually form the “Gekiga Workshop,” to distinguish themselves from the comics for children pioneered by the God of Manga Osamu Tezuka…and a new legend is born.
At first, Drawn & Quarterly's lavish publication of gekiga pioneer Yoshihiro Tatsumi seemed unnecessarily indulgent. But by the time the third collected volume Good-Bye was released, it had become clear that the publisher is indeed doing an important cultural service to the world, by bringing into the light a relatively obscure portion of the history of Japan's postwar manga boom.
A Drifting Life is the fourth Tatsumi title to be released in carefully adapted and retouched left-to-right, and weighing in at a door stopping 856 pages, it is arguably the most significant. This is Tatsumi's sequential art memoir, but for reasons left largely to the imagination of the reader, he has cast himself as the semi-fictionalized “Hiroshi Katsumi.” One cannot help but wonder what details about his own life he saw fit to alter; certainly, in as much as Hiroshi's life on the forefront of the rental manga publishing industry is truly exciting, his life away from the drafting table definitely is not. There is a definite irony to the fact that Tatsumi's manga in The Push Man and Other Stories and Abandon the Old in Tokyo are so sordid when other aspects of his autobiography are so banal. No daring criminal exploits. Hardly anything in the way of romantic relationships. In a way, it perhaps comes as no surprise that Tatsumi lived his life through his characters.
There is also a definite dramatic irony in relation to Hiroshi's one—and constantly thwarted—ambition to create a long work. He finds himself riding the wave of the rental manga boom, and that genre was driven by the short story format. His production throughout the period of the events recounted is mighty impressive, but he never finds the opportunity to produce a multivolume work. Of course, all the while you are reading about how he never gets the chance to draw the story he really wants to, you are holding it (unless it's on the table in front of you—this is a one heavy book) in your hands! A Drifting Life is roughly equivalent to four ordinary, individual volumes of manga.
So, how is his execution? Well, pretty darn good, considering. He takes you every step of the way from his childhood reading manga along with his sickly elder brother (who also becomes a fellow manga creator later in life) to the rise and rapid fall of the Gekiga Workshop. You see how profoundly modern manga was influenced by other media, particularly features films. Also in the process, you will learn far, far more about manga publishing, how to get gigs, and the interaction between author and editor than you probably ever wanted to. Oh, and let the jury rest: The autonomous manga creator is a Western myth. Most of the latter half of the story is a power struggle between various publishers and their stable of artists because what the two parties want more often than not do not completely coincide. Even though you get the sense that Hiroshi is pioneering some amazing experimental techniques, you also sense—even more acutely—how confined he is creatively by commercial pressures. There is never a time in any of these 856 pages that he gets to do exactly what he wants.
As mentioned earlier, Hiroshi is kind of boring as a character. But what is really nice about how Tatsumi goes about telling his tale, though, is the way in which it is carefully situated in the historic sweep of postwar Japan. Every chapter includes a montage of important current and cultural events, and there are often subtle thematic linkages to what is happening in the characters' lives in the same chapter. (There are occasional bouts of authorial senility, though, and sometimes the same information is repeated twice. It's not too intrusive a problem.)
Of course, you get a veritable Who's Who of manga and gekiga making either cameo or sustained appearances. Most of the names Tatsumi drops will not be familiar in the West, but even casual anime fans are likely to recognize Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, Black Jack) and Takao Saito (Golgo 13), as both of their works have been animated. It's great to see the men behind the manga, as it were, and Tatsumi's detailed, vintage style of illustration brings both them and their respective art styles alive. The latter is particularly important for readers unfamiliar with the gekiga tradition; without the scrupulous visual documentation, it would be nearly impossible to truly understand what is going on if you were not already “in the know.”
And anyway, that is what A Drifting Life is really about—the men behind the manga and the ways in which they and the art form they cherish grow to maturity. A must read for anyone who styles him- or herself a serious anime, manga, or indie comics fan.
Overall : A
Story : A-
Art : A
+ A magnificent presentation, well told and wonderfully illustrated, of an important historical document.
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