Let’s get the confusion out of the way: “Manga” is not an incitement to eat up in Italian. But don’t let your ignorance of the Japanese graphic art form stop you from cracking open the two inch-thick A Drifting Life. Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s lush 834-page exploration of life as a Japanese manga innovator is as relentlessly compelling to the uninitiated as to those well acquainted with Tatsumi, the “grandfather of Japanese alternative comics.”
A Drifting Life succeeds by combining the personal with the universal. Yes, Tatsumi reveals cringingly intimate details of his early life – the complexity of his relationship with an abusive but occasionally protective older brother, embarrassingly naive and premature ejaculatory encounters with the opposite sex, and the dawning realization of the depth of his parents’ marital dysfunction. But what makes this memoir masterful is the way his drawings and text explore the larger human condition.
Born in 1935, Hiroshi Katsumi, (the name Yoshihiro Tatsumi gives himself in Drifting Life) was ten years old at the end of the Second World War. Even at that young age, he is old enough to be aware of the political, social and cultural context that surrounds him. It is appropriate then that the memoir opens with a depiction of the devastating effects that surrender had on the Japanese people for many years after the official end of the war. Drunken American G.I.s in rickshaws, children peeking out of straw hovels, and Hiroshi and his brother’s desperate need for some kind of distraction from the grim reality of their lives, fill the opening section.
Throughout the memoir, which covers the years between 1945 to 1960 with a brief epilogue set in 1995, the reader is introduced to important cultural aspects of the Japanese post-war experience that have been consistently ignored in other Western pop-culture forms. Thanks to this graphic memoir we learn about picture storytellers (50,000 of whom regularly performed on the streets of Japan), the historical influence that manga had on young people, as well as the variety of ingenious ways that the art form was consumed. And we are introduced to the legendary Tezuka, an icon of manga who haunts the pages of Drifting Life from beginning to end, just as he lingers even after death in Tatsumi’s creative psyche.
By the age of fourteen, when Hiroshi is first published, he is already a self-proclaimed manga addict, dependent on the art form for any feelings of self-worth or any confidence in his ability to express himself. Although it is his family’s expectation that he will study hard, excel at his high school exams and go to university, he inevitably sacrifices conventional success for the demands made by manga – incessant deadlines for new work, increasing editorial responsibilities, and a driving desire to redefine manga within the context of the dramatic changes in Japanese society. His obsessive relationship with his chosen art form is a convincing example of Tatsumi’s ability to reveal the universality of an artist’s experience while exploring what are in fact the very personal details of his own creative life. So go on, manga!
B.A. Markus is a writer, a newly initiated admirer of manga and a long time lover of Italian food.