DRAGONFLIES DRAW FLAME sojourns & reviews

A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi/REVIEW

Posted in Autobiography, Comic Books, Graphic Novels, Literature, Non-Fiction, Reviews by David on June 17, 2009
A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Author: Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Designer: Adrian Tomine
Paperback: 840 pages, b/w
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly (April 14, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1897299745
ISBN-13: 978-1897299746
Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 6.5 x 2.2 inches
MSRP: $29.95 US / $36.95 CDN
Amazon: $19.77 US / $22.43 CDN


Manga legend Yoshihiro Tatsumi chronicles his life and career in post-war Japan as an ever struggling artist attempting to rediscover both himself and his craft, intertwining his autobiography with the history of Manga. These two narratives are backdropped by the reconstruction of Japan in the post-war period as it struggles to regain national pride while at once being influenced by foreign works such as Western films, animation, and later the hard-boiled realism of American detective comics. Tatsumi (who is depicted in the story as Hiroshi Katsumi) begins his career as a Manga artist as early as middle school, where he and his younger brother write postcard Manga everyday for submission in monthly regional Manga magazines. By the time he was in his second year of high school, Tatsumi was already a fairly well known Manga artist who would begin to tip-toe into the same elite social circle as acclaimed Manga artist Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka became Tatsumi’s mentor during his formative years in high school and early college and was his lifelong inspiration.

The graphic novel traces Tatsumi’s early obsession with Manga as a neophyte in middle school and early college through his development and maturity as a renowned and daringly experimental artist. The work starts off slowly and repetitively, as the reader is taken through rejection letter after rejection letter from various publishers as Tatsumi attempts to kick-start his career. The novel is at its strongest when detailing the chronology of these influences on Tatsumi and Japanese culture at large. The story is one part autobiography, one part Manga almanac, one part history book: it references significant events in Tatsumi’s life, such as his parents’ failed marriage; events in Manga publication history, complete with replicated cover illustrations and publication dates of influential Manga; and milestones in art and culture, such as reproductions of General Douglas MacArthur’s retirement speech from his post in Japan and a photograph of Elvis Presley taking his Army physical examination. At certain points, Tatsumi illustrates popular television figures as they were seen by viewers of that time period, complete with highly interlaced lines of blurred cathray tubed television. The result is very impressive and is a welcomed break from Tatsumi’s very generic looking characters.

My major gripe with the work is the lack of in-depth psychological development. Tatsumi begins tracing his psychological development by describing the frictions in his parents marriage caused by his father’s failure as a businessman. Furthermore, the narrative alludes to his father maintaining multiple affairs with supposed business partners. We are told the author was too young to realize the true nature of his father’s relationships with these women until he became much older. However, Tatsumi never delineates when he finally understood his father’s connection to these women and how it affected him and his family. This is altogether unfortunate, as one later finds that Tatsumi’s brewing frustration and isolation are foundational to his creation of a new aesthetic theory for Manga, which he calls “Gekiga.” Since adolescence, Tatsumi’s relationships with women are marked by timidity and apprehension, causing him to retreat more and more deeply into the world of Manga. As Tatsumi’s skill and reputation within the world of Manga continues arising, so does his dissatisfaction with it. He wishes to move away from the slapstick humor characterized by most panel and short-length works, and create a style of Manga that captures the psychological state of its characters and to deal with subject matters relating to everyday life. Tatsumi looks towards American and French cinema for inspiration for this new aesthetic, which could be understood as a form of realism (although that term is never used in the novel itself). The new Manga genre became so influential and controversial that politicians and advocacy groups began to demand it be pulled off of shelves and out of the hands of children. Many in Tatsumi’s group were blacklisted. My dissatisfaction occurs with Tatsumi’s reluctance to reveal the entire theory behind his aesthetic. Although the narrative tells us he used cinematic still frames and designs between panels to create psychological ambience, we  are never told that the real meat and potatoes of his new genre lay behind his choice of subject matter. Although I haven’t read any of Tatsumi’s other works, summaries of his other works, such as Good-Bye, Abandon the Old in Tokyo, and The Push Man and Other Stories expose a writer willing to tackle taboo subjects such as sexuality, Hiroshima, and the inner torment of apparently normal, everyday people. For an artist who is so concerned and contemplative about the common man, there is not much in the book that elucidates his drawing from experiences with people he encountered to use as psychological models for his characters. Tatsumi does a fine job recording the artistic and commercial development of Manga, but falters when he attempts (or neglects) to capture the subjective experiences which are at the heart of his interpretation of Manga.

A Drifting Life is nonetheless a recommendable book for anyone interested in Manga or the history of literature (I fit more closely into the latter category). It places Manga in its context in the history of the Japanese reconstruction after the Second World War and argues for Manga as a powerful and legitimate medium to redefine the voice of a generation juxtaposed between an isolationist history and a heavily commercialized and commodified future.

MAKES ME WANT TO READ: Good-Bye by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, MW by Osamu Tezuka, Waltz with Bashir: A Lebanon War Story by Ari Folman and David Polonsky, Amano: The Complete Prints of Yoshitaka Amano by Yoshitaka Amano

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