A Drifting Life
by Yoshihiro Tatsumi (Drawn & Quarterly, 2009)

A Drifting Life would probably be best enjoyed by those who either love manga or have a deep-seated love of biographies. At 856 pages, ADL is an autobiographical, Bible-sized eye-opener about a highly important but very obscure period in comics history that needs to be told, if only because Japanese writer and artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi is one of the forefathers of the modern long-form comic book known as the graphic novel.

Tatsumi looks back on a lifetime of being a manga artist, from his beginnings as a young fan of manga who was entering his postcard drawings to monthly shonen ("boy") magazine contests, to being writer/artist and editor of some of Japan's top manga magazines. ADL is filled with historical details of post-World War II Japan, which are an inextricable part of the development of manga from entertainment to art form, and, of course, from pleasant pastime into a very profitable business. Although is it labeled as a bildungsroman, ADL is really more apprentice-to-journeyman-to-sensei. It is indeed a coming-of-age story, but the romance is more about a young man and his dream of creating comics that could really tell stories, at the heart of which is a play-by-play account of a developing art form.

The Osaka-born Tatsumi began writing and drawing manga strips while in 7th grade. The family of six was not rich, the father either underemployed or involved in shady business deals; additionally, one of his brothers suffered from pleurisy. Manga, a style of comic that was heavy on satire and light on humanities, was a way to escape reality. As Tatsumi continued to win enough money from the monthly postcard contests to help support his family, manga became a way to make ends meet. He eventually formed the groundbreaking Children's Manga Association. From there he went to work for publishers that pumped out what would in America be the equivalent of monthly-issued pulp fiction books. They were distributed through book rental companies, the Japanese equivalent of a video rental store, where books were loaned out and returned at the end of the month. This is how they came to be labeled "rental manga."

Rental manga printed the work of several artists at once. Their working conditions were the artistic version of sweatshop labor as they kept up a furious output to keep pace with the exploding public demand. Although Tatsumi loved the part of the job that sees him improving his writing and drawing with each issue, he chafed at the lack of creative freedom. A lover of the cinema and classical literature, he saw the inherent value of episodic narratives. Manga, he believed, could be more than cartoons with a simplistic message; they could tell multilayered, full-length stories similar to movies and novels. The idea might not seem revolutionary today but back then it was the subject of furious debate in the hothouse, highly competitive atmosphere in which Tatsumi lived and breathed.

ADL touches on complex issues such as creative theft, professional envy, writer's block and other difficult realities associated with being a writer in a highly competitive field. Tatsumi wanted to be free to pursue long-form narrative but the need for money to support himself and his family kept him glued to a brutal schedule that pushed him into a love-hate relationship with his craft.

As in the United States, due to overreactive parents and self-appointed (as well as actual state-appointed) minsters of culture, controversy came in the form of handwringing over the damage being done to young minds who spent too much time reading comics. There were protests, followed by the shutting down of book rental shops, which put a serious crimp on the artistic freedoms of the artists and the finances of increasingly panicked publishers.

The time was ripe for change as the children who had grown up reading cartoons, and then comics, were now young adults who wanted something more mature. Along with other gifted artists, Tatsumi was able to push the visual and narrative boundaries of the medium by forming the Gekiga Workshop. ("Gekiga" is Japanese for "dramatic pictures.") An artistic revolution was born, a necessary step due to the increasingly popular view of manga as "irresponsible pictures." Will Eisner took the same step when he began calling his comics "graphic novels" instead of "comic books," in order to differentiate his work from less serious comics. Even Osama Tezuka, the creator of Astroboy and the most revered artist in Japan, began to incorporate the gekiga style in his stories.

The more realistic style of drawing and writing was a welcome break from the same old storytelling, and extremely popular to boot. Instead of being driven underground like American comics, the Golden Age of Manga actually flourished in a time of experimental and diverse storytelling that would last until the late '70s.

Tatsumi himself would go on to create the highly acclaimed The Push Man & Other Stories and Good-Bye. A full-length animation feature on the life and short stories of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, directed by Eric Khoo, will be released this year.

review by
Mary Harvey

12 March 2011

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