My rating: 4 of 5 stars
First off, don’t read this book expecting a fast paced, high energy read. This is a book about a man making manga and not a book of manga. That distinction needs to be kept in your mind at all times while reading this book. There are no wide-eyed, big tittied manga babes in short skirts. There are no slick, suit wearing secret agents hiding in the bushes with silenced guns. There is a lot of crippling self doubt and talking about the way books were being published in the middle of the 20th century. And I do mean a lot. This book is mammoth, clocking in around 850 pages. (I suggest using it to press the water out of tofu when you get done reading it.)
A Drifting Life starts with the surrender of Japan in 1945 and proceeds to recount the tale of how Yoshihiro Tatsumi (in the book renamed Hiroshi Katsumi for unknown reasons) turned his all encompassing passion for manga into a career that to a great extent redefined what manga could be. All told there are thousands of details and vignettes over a roughly 15 year span recounted in A Drifting Life. We get to follow along as Katsumi starts his first collective, the Children’s Manga Association in the 7th grade, through the sometimes bitter rivalries between the different manga publishing houses, and into the creation of the darker and grittier form of manga called gekiga and the rise and fall of the Gekiga Workshop. Throughout all of this we are given little montages of historical trivia that help contextualize what is going on in the narrative.
The story at its core is a bildungsroman, but the even handed treatment of every scene makes few moments stand out as important enough to be an essential moment of a life. Even Hiroshi’s awkward fumblings toward sexual maturity get glossed over as quickly as a comment on where Hiroshi’s buddies eat their meals. One can not say what were the moments that led to changing the face of modern manga. Everything comes across in a very “and then this happened” manner. Tatsumi writes with the voice of a school teacher explaining how Japan was changing in the post war years. The pace of the text is nearly glacial. Tatsumi’s stand-in does indeed drift through life. Sometimes pulled along by the current and other times making decisions that usually end up with several panels of Hiroshi rubbing his head and worrying if he has made the right move.
That is not to say that the story is boring. The reader gets an in depth education in the world of mid-century manga publication, and a whose who of manga artists and writers trod the boards over the course of the book. If you know a lot about Japanese comics you will learn quite a bit more about the people and books that helped build the revolution in manga that occurred during the 1950’s. History buffs should also get a thrill out of this. The reader is given a lot of insight into how it felt to be Japanese during post war reconstruction. Even if you don’t care about manga and history, the story of a man in the process of becoming is still powerful. Taking a peak into the life of this quiet, awkward genius is a very rewarding experience. The moments when Hiroshi makes a creative breakthrough are universal in their appeal. Everyone can relate to these moments in which there is a clarity of purpose and everything seems to be leading somewhere.
The major problem with this book is that those universal moments of clarity don’t really lead us anywhere. At least within the confines of the book. We, as readers, have to know how the story ends. We are expected to understand that Tatsumi-san stands as one of the all-time greats of the genre. We are expected to know that he finally goes on to create the type of books that he struggles throughout A Drifting Life to write. If we don’t know these things, we are left with a book that reads slightly like a text book and slightly like the story of a boring everyman that just can’t seem to get it together enough to make that big break happen. The fact that most readers in the english speaking world have gotten little opportunity to read the works of Yoshihiro Tatsumi is much of the issue. Thankfully Drawn & Quarterly, the publisher of this translation have released three volumes of Tatsumi’s short story work. Hopefully between those editions and the publication of A Drifting Life, Yoshiro Tatsumi will be as well known in the west as Osamu Tezuka (Tatsumi’s hero and literary forefather) or Takao Saito (his friend and literary contemporary).
Even though the book is gargantuan it is a quick read. The text is not overly complex and the artwork is clean and clear. There are a few moments that the panel layout looks a bit off because of the way that Drawn & Quarterly have rearranged the book to read left to right instead of right to left in the Japanese style, but these pages are not distractingly off. There is an appendix in the rear of the book that gives some additional translations of Japanese words in the panels. This is handy, but the size of the book does make it a tad awkward to flip back and forth. Footnotes and annotations would have been a great addition to the book, but probably would have put the page count into the unbindable range. Google and Wikipedia are your friends if the names don’t ring enough bells for you.
I can’t safely recommend this book to everyone, but to those that enjoy memoir or are interested in the history of manga or Japan in the post-war period, I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to learn a little.
Now excuse me, I have some tofu to press…