A DRIFTING LIFE • Yoshihiro Tatsumi • Drawn & Quarterly • Unrated (16+)
Osamu Tezuka, often considered the founder of modern manga, died in 1989, and as the other great figures of Manga’s Golden Age also enter their 70s and 80s, stories of the early years become more and more precious. As present-day manga sales shrink, at times it seems like all manga is caught up in a nostalgia boom–take a manga like Kingyo Used Books, in which the high-selling manga years of the early 1980s are made to seem like a glorious past. This standalone, book-length (800-page!) work by mangaka Yoshihiro Tatsumi (The Push Man, Abandon the Old in Tokyo), who became famous for his grim and gritty adult manga, combines a historical perspective on the origins of the manga industry with a partial autobiography of Tatsumi’s own early life and career. Despite the slim disguise of calling the main character “Hiroshi,” it’s openly autobiographical, something almost never seen in commercial manga, although fairly common in American alt-comics such as the works of Alison Bechdel, Craig Thompson and Joe Matt. (It’s no surprise that the English edition is published by art-comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly.) Starting in 1945 when Tatsumi was only 10 years old, the story follows his life until 1960, as the aspiring artist goes from just a manga-obsessed kid living with his parents, to a hardworking, clever professional and a pioneer in adult, politically loaded and sexually frank graphic novels. Figures both big and small, both public and personal, wander through the narrative: major manga artists like Tezuka and Takao Saito play a role, as do now-forgotten figures such as Hiroshi’s older brother, a manga artist in his own right. The narrative incorporates both the minutiae of Tatsumi’s life–who he was friends with, where he lived, his relationships with women–with historical trivia about postwar Japan and reminiscences about the manga industry, a place of shady publishers and perilous business ventures, of artists both seedy and sincere. Throughout, Tatsumi continually struggles to make better manga (after watching a cowboy movie, he comes out of the theater thinking about how best to do gunshot sound effects) and, specifically, to create more adult works, gekiga (”dramatic pictures”) influenced by detective novels and film noir, in contrast to the four-panel childrens’ manga (a word which literally means “whimsical pictures”) still dominant at the time. His brother criticizes him: “I appreciate your drive, but don’t you think what you call ‘experimental’ might simply be ’self-indulgent’? Why can’t manga just be manga?” With particular relevance to manga’s struggles today, A Drifting Life reminds us that the manga business was never a sure thing, that it was always hard work for dubious contracts and low pay, and that even in the 1950s, Japanese censors and parents’ groups denounced it as a bad influence on children. Suitably for the title, the narrative often drifts from place to place, anecdote to anecdote, and countless plot threads and characters are introduced and forgotten. What was the hinted-at, “unspeakably bitter past” of aging manga artist Kuroda? What about the ever-so-briefly-depicted affairs of Hiroshi’s father, or Hiroshi’s own nervous experimentation with women, which (although discreetly drawn) foreshadows Tatsumi’s artistic interest in sex and sexual dysfunction? Even the ending seems sudden and arbitrary, but perhaps it’s like life itself that the world is too big to grasp, that so many pieces of the story are left unresolved. These people lived and died, they were part of the life of Hiroshi/Tatsumi, and they contributed to the development of manga. As Dave Sim once wrote, the personal element behind the stories fades away, but the work endures. Tatsumi’s art is a tiny bit rougher around the edges than his older work, but still immensely detailed, and his smooth storytelling is a pleasure to read.
**** (four stars)
Today’s winner is Albert L. of Massachusetts. Congratulations, Albert!