The Big Picture

A Drifting Life BY Yoshihiro Tatsumi. edited by Adrian Tomine. Drawn and Quarterly. Paperback, 840 pages. $29.

The cover of A Drifting Life

Born in 1935 and a published mangaka before he was out of high school, Yoshihiro Tatsumi has enjoyed a long and prolific career, albeit one unfamiliar to English-speaking readers prior to Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly’s recent efforts to translate his body of short works. Three collections have been produced under the editorship of cartoonist Adrian Tomine: The Push Man and Other Stories (2005), Abandon the Old in Tokyo (2006), and Good-Bye (2008). In each volume, Tatsumi delivers curt, sharp slaps of city angst as his near-identical characters wander hazily through doomed, damned times—usually the ’60s and ’70s (when the works were originally published), but sometimes stretch-ing back to the hell of postwar occupation or becoming unmoored in a nightmare of timeless desire.

This is the stuff of Tatsumi’s gekiga, the term he coined in the mid-’50s to differentiate his “dramatic pictures” from the “whimsical” ones of manga. You don’t hear a lot about gekiga today, and certainly Tatsumi’s strange, disquieting stories don’t fit North Americans’ typical conception of Japanese comics. But while the sho-nen (boy) and sho-jo (girl) series common in American bookstores extend into an intimidating number of volumes, their content is often schematic, so thoroughly vetted for their youth audience that many seem adopted from some hornbook. Much manga targeted at older audiences is published in Japan, but the few such books brought to North America are often subsumed under the general category of youth comics. In that sense, it’s helpful to see manga in the United States today as being akin to the form in ’50s Japan: growing in popularity but firmly a youthful presence, its potential understandable, if only to the devout.

And so, again, comes Tatsumi. A Drifting Life is different from his other Drawn & Quarterly books. It’s a new work, for instance—made over an eleven-year period—and a single, extended narrative, more than eight hundred pages long. It’s also patently autobiographical, despite the artist’s use of the invented name Hiroshi Katsumi for his narrative stand-in. Yet the most obvious departure from those prior books is the tone. Anyone expecting page after page of relentlessly bleak atmosphere and manic despair will be disarmed by the calm, anecdotal means by which the artist relates fifteen years of his life, from August 1945 to June 1960. The narrative is most comparable to stories by the American comics writer Harvey Pekar, who is always front and center in his work, relating events straight from his life (or someone else’s) with little fuss.

Although much longer than the average Pekar comic, A Drifting Life nevertheless feels similar. Reading it is not unlike sitting down with Tatsumi himself and listening to his tale over several hours, savoring aptly placed digressions into popular culture and social landmarks—the start of television broadcasting, the first importation of Coca-Cola—that keep the time line pulsing. His art hasn’t changed much since the short stories of three decades ago, although there’s some stiffness now to his figures, particularly his pretty girls, and the historical nature of the narrative has prompted him to include what appear to be drawn versions of photographs depicting important events and characteristic settings of the time, along with many samples of pertinent period manga he’s redrawn.

But Tatsumi’s style remains a product of the manga scene of midcentury Japan. Even in the darkest stories, the artist’s simplified cartoon characters remind the reader of Tatsumi’s proximity to the reinvention of the art form, a generation before, by Osamu Tezuka, a devotee of Disney and a fan of cinematic framing techniques. Indeed, Tatsumi’s gekiga shorts have always carried both an anxiety of influence and the charge of a response, an eagerness to bite back at the manga that didn’t grow up after the war alongside its fanatic boy readership. In A Drifting Life, the same conflicted attitude is appropriate as an expression of the times depicted and as a way of foreshadowing the mature content Tatsumi would engender. The dreamy progression of images found in those gekiga stories is absent here. After all, this is reality, and Tatsumi is older. And gekiga, no doubt, is not what it used to be.

Chapter by chapter, the story burbles by. This measured flow sometimes produces a dispassionate narrative: A scene in which young Katsumi happens on his father lying beaten in the road has roughly the same space and dramatic impact as when he creates a new comic to submit for prize money. Tellingly, the most suspense in the book’s early chapters comes from a visit to the great Tezuka, first imagined as a looming shadow watching our manga-crazy boy. The impact Tezuka had on Japanese comics was profound, and Tatsumi allows a sequence of his hero sketching to span a lavish page and a half, in which intense close-ups of a blank page become filled with life as Tatsumi’s panels dart to Katsumi’s face, then closer to the page, then his eyes, then the page, until the “magical” experience—as Katsusmi characterizes it—is completed.

Little else receives such intensive treatment, including Katsumi’s close relationship with his ailing brother, Okimasa, also a prospective manga artist and often intensely jealous of Katsumi’s quick success. Their arguments are conveyed with gnashings of teeth and fat dollops of tears, but these are employed only as basic signifiers of feelings and do not provide an affecting sense of emotional sincerity. After a few panels, it’s right on to the next anecdote, emotions cooling as life marches forward.

Yet as dry and disaffected as Tatsumi’s approach can be, the book still fascinates. It is by far the most detailed first-person account of the early days of postwar manga available in English (let alone in manga form), and its purposeful stride through the years makes for brisk reading. Narrative color arrives as Katsumi falls into the business of creating manga aimed at the kashibonya, or book-rental market. (Publishers in the Osaka of Katsumi’s time are practically run out of back rooms.) Soon the artist is making friends with like-minded peers, none of whom will be familiar to most English-language readers—save maybe for Takao Saito, creator of the popular assassin series Golgo 13, first published in 1969— and none of whom possess much individuality in Tatsumi’s narrative, although their presence allows for the reproduction of old-time manga pages, which take up an increasing amount of space in Tatsumi’s own pages.

Naturally, the thrill of the new can’t last forever. Almost as soon as Katsumi and his brother invent gekiga, the former is editing influential anthologies, getting caught up in the machinations between publishers, and acting as point man and treasurer for a group of united artists called Gekiga Workshop, a demanding position that saps his enthusiasm for his own work. Through the din of these events, a grander theme sounds—postwar Japan’s desire for full autonomy, which crests in June 1960 with protests against the American presence in the country. After the close of Katsumi’s story here, Tatsumi would go on to create the short works he’s best known for, and the epic concludes with a sharp hint of what’s to come: Katsumi stuck in a street demonstration against a security treaty with America, eventually shouting along, tears streaming down his face. “Japan, too, is adrift!” he realizes. “That’s the element that gekiga has forgotten . . . anger!” Katsumi is excited and moved yet consumed with a deep loneliness. “No! I’ll never be done with gekiga!”

Yet even that passion cannot persist, as such a methodically drifting book bears out. An epilogue takes us to a 1995 memorial service for Tezuka attended by Katsumi. The postwar dream, embodied in comics by Tezuka, has died. Katsumi slips out early, only to receive a souvenir bag. Among the contents: official “Jungle Emperor Leo” whiskey, melding adult inebriation with Tezuka’s beloved children’s character (known in America as Kimba the White Lion). It’s a telling symbol of how the art form has evolved in Tatsumi’s lifetime—sweet idealism turned to commercial consumption. This book may not draw attention away from other Japanese comics on the shelves, manga or gekiga, but its presence feels curiously necessary.

Joe McCulloch blogs on comics at His essays and reviews have appeared in the Comics Journal and Comics Comics.