#CBR6 Review #19: A Drifting Life
Profile: Autobiography, Manga, Graphic Novel
After Action Report:
A Drifting Life is a wonderfully thick tome of a graphic novel. Equal parts autobiography, national history and understated drama; the book chronicles the story of one of the founding fathers of Japanese Manga. The style pioneered by Yoshihiro Tatsumi was one of the first attempts to turn cartoons into a medium for serious works. Appropriately, his story is a serious one, touching on the themes of artistic integrity and the struggles of living in postwar Japan. It is an exquisite novel, and only feels unfocused because that’s how life sometimes is.
While A Drifting Life is an autobiography, Tatsumi authored the book as if it were about someone else. His fictional stand in, Hiroshi Katsumi, is the central protagonist, and a brief editor’s note remarks that a number of other names have been changed. The book picks up at the end of World War II with the surrender of Emperor Hirohito. Hiroshi is ten and has already developed a love of Manga and drawing. Along with his brother, Oki, Hiroshi starts on the path of a Manga-ka, submitting amateur comic strips to various publishing houses. To his surprise, he is published.
As the book follows Hiroshi’s growth as a person and as an artist, the narrator keeps us abreast of cultural events in Japan. Famous events, movies and movements bookend segments of Hiroshi’s life, chronicling his inspirations and influences. They also paint a picture of life in American-occupied Japan and the following periods of economic growth. The book is as much a history of Manga and entertainment in Japan as it is an autobiography, but that history is filtered through the lens of Tatsumi’s life and experiences. The result is a very specific slideshow of the time period, providing context to the actual story without eclipsing it or bogging it down.
Unsurprisingly, the art is excellent. Tatsumi’s style blends simplistic characters and faces with very realistically rendered scenery and set pieces. The historical asides are peppered with images from famous movie posters, book covers and newspaper photographs. At the same time, the art doesn’t look like traditional Manga. The faces are simple, but realistically proportioned. No giant eyes or absent noses. The style is distinctly Tatsumi’s, evoking his The Push Man and Hitokuigyo. It may seem a little sloppy from time to time, but there is a charm to this earnest portrayal of Hiroshi; slightly silly looking, but still realistic.
One thing that really struck me was how complete Hiroshi’s story feels. While it is obvious that much of the day to day minutia of his life is being omitted, it still feels like we are seeing a very honest and full portrayal of the life of a real person. A Drifting Life shows Hiroshi as someone whose life is consumed by Manga. We see so much of his life because all of it is important to this story of an artist struggling to find his unique artistic voice in an industry that rewards a certain degree of mass production and conformity. While his contemporaries were writing slapstick comedies, Hiroshi/Tatsumi was trying to establish a style that felt more cinematic and had room for drama, suspense and action.
There is a sense of futility that haunts both the life and work of Hiroshi, no doubt emblematic of the frustrations that Tatsumi encountered over the course of his career. His inability to pin down his style of Gekiga while working for various publishers is compelling, and familiar to anyone who has tried to express themselves artistically. And that’s why you should read this book, even if you’ve never heard of Manga before. At its core, A Drifting Life is about striving to create something that meets your own standards. I can think of few books that express just how hard that process can be as well as A Drifting Life.
I’ve waxed somewhat philosophical here, or perhaps just aesthetical, but the book really is quite good. And there is something I find immensely satisfying about reading a heavy book. A Drifting Life scratches that itch both literally and metaphorically. Heavy with history, with the honest measure of a life and heavy with the legacy of a truly magnificent artist.