I don’t know much about manga, Japanese comics, but I know a lot more now that I have read Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life, a “memoir” of one of the most well-known manga creators. Tatsumi was responsible for creating “gekiga,” a genre of manga that sought to differentiate itself from manga for kids, which, as typical for comics everywhere it seems, was seen as a corrupting influence.
I put memoir in quotation marks above because Tatsumi renames himself Hiroshi Katsumi in the book, suggesting a distance or even displacement between historical reality and what the book represents. However, I have seen no reviewer call the book fiction rather than memoir. And the book has little in it to suggest that it might be anything different than Tatsumi’s own memories of his own experience. Still, the renaming is curious, as if Tatsumi is objectifying himself, looking at himself as if he were someone else.
The memoir covers 15 years, from the end of World War II in 1945 to 1960, the year of the Security Treaty between Japan and the US. The state of Japan and its national psychology after the war are always in the background, as Tatsumi includes several key historical points, such as General MacArthur’s being removed from command in Japan in 1951. These pieces of history tend to be drawn differently than the clear lines of the main story, with more shading and cross hatching. The same is true of the many films (Japanese, American, European) that Tatsumi refers to. Clearly, political history and film are the key extrinsic influences on “Katsumi’s” artistic development. Indeed, the book concludes with Katsumi drawn into a massive protest over the Security Treaty. The protest somehow inspires him to persist in the gekiga genre. When he notices that “Japan, too, is adrift” (825), it makes Katsumi somehow iconic of Japan’s postwar situation, and suggests a new socio-political bent to his work. Such work does not appear in this volume, and readers more familiar with Tatsumi’s post-1960 output will have to vouch for, or dismiss, this suggestion.
The historical elements have more to do with manga’s place in post-war Japanese culture than with the manga represented in this book. Film, however, is much more prominent in Katsumi’s artistic development. When he can’t work, Katsumi goes to the movies and incorporates filmic concepts into his work. Anyone studying the relationship between film and comics would do well to read this book. Gekiga is an attempt to bring a more cinematic scope to manga. Katsumi wants to slow stories down and develop them over greater space than the short stories that publishers want allow.
A Drifting Life shows the development of a medium and the difficulties in establishing a new genre within that medium more than the personal development of its creator. Katsumi’s father is something of a ne’erdowell and, while his parents share the same roof, they are to all intents and purposes separated. His brother Okimasa has pleurisy. One of his sister’s friends develops a crush on him. The few sexual or romantic relationships (a brief dalliance with a restaurant “madam” and an episode in which Katsumi is pursued by a forward high school girl) are presented so as to show how inconsequential they are. These details of a life are just that. The real story is of the manga. And it is amazing how engrossing 840 pages of meta-manga can be: the conditions of its production, the vagaries and vicissitudes of the publishing industry and the rental manga business. (via)
A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi