Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Drifting Life

An epic memoir from a manga master — Over four decades ago, Yoshihiro Tatsumi expended the horizons of comics storytelling by using the visual language of manga to tell gritty, literary stories about the private lives of everyday people. He has been called “the grandfather of Japanese alternative comics” and has influenced generations of cartoonists around the world. Now the visionary creator of The Push Man and Other Stories and Good-Bye has turned his incisive, unflinching gaze upon himself. Over ten years in the making, A Drifting Life is Tatsumi's most ambitious, personal, and heart-felt work: an autobiographical bildungsroman in comics form. Using his life-long obsession with comics as a framework, Tatsumi weaves a complex story that encompasses family dynamics, Japanese culture and history, first love, the intricacies of the manga industry, and most importantly, what it means to be an artist. Alternately humorous, enlighting, and haunting, this is the masterful summation of a fascinating life and an historic career.” [Text from the back-cover]

Yoshihiro TATSUMI [辰巳 ヨシヒロ] was born in 1935 in Tennōji-ku, Osaka. Inspired by the work of Osamu TEZUKA and Noboru ÔSHIRO, he starts drawing manga in junior high school and has his first works (simple 4-panel and postcard manga) published in 1949. His first full-length story, Kodomojima (Children's Island), is published by Tsurushobô in 1954. He becomes part of a group of artists based in the Kansai region publishing mostly for the kashibon'ya market (libraries specialized in renting hardcover books—many publishers, like Hinomaru bunko, produced their books and anthologies exclusively for that market). He then starts to be regularly published in manga compilation (contributing to anthologies like Kage [Shadow] or Machi [City]) and constantly experiments with his storytelling. His stylistic research culminate with the publication of Kuroi Fubuki (Black Snowstorm) in 1956.

Tatsumi (and the group of artists he associated with: Takao SAITÔ, Masaaki SATÔ, Masahiko MATSUMOTO among others) was writing action-oriented stories that were darker than the typical manga, and therefore, aimed at an older, more mature readership. His stories were about people's everyday life and were using realistic themes that were more in sync with the socio-political problems of the time. In order to express such a complex storytelling he was using artistic techniques inspired by cinema (he was a big movie fan). That allowed for more expressive stories, as the narrative was better paced and the action flowing more naturally through the panels. In order to distinguish his style from the more comical and childish manga that was usual at the time, Tatsumi gave it the name “gekiga” (drama pictures). His group of artist was known as the “gekiga workshop.”

A Drifting Life (劇画漂流, Gekiga Hyouryuu / A Drifting life in gekiga) was originally published in 2008 by Seirin Kogeisha. In this manga, Tatsumi is recounting how he got inspired by his brother, despite their sibling rivalry, to become a manga artist, how he met and exchanged with Osamu Tezuka and how he becomes the mangaka he is today. It is an autobiographical story but he changed his name to “Hiroshi Katsumi” (and also altered a few other characters' name) in order to distance himself from the story (and hopefully avoid getting in trouble with his friends appearing in it!). We learned how he got involved with the pay-library market and created the gekiga workshop—which was quite successful until the late 50s and early 60s. At that time, Japan started to experience a postwar economic hyperdrive and, as people had a bigger disposable income, they were buying more than renting their manga. The pay libraries slowly faded away in favor of competing magazine publishers. Manga magazines grew in number, became much thicker and were published more frequently (often weekly instead of monthly).

A Drifting Life is a great book for many reasons. I'll give you three of them. First, it is simply a good read as it tells a compelling human story. Second, if you are interested in Japanese culture, this manga offers some insights on ordinary people's daily life and chronicles many events of Japan history during the 50s & 60s. Finally, and foremost, it provides an essential account of the history of manga. Of course, some might consider Tatsumi's artwork a little crude and cartoony (the same can be said of Tezuka's work), but there's so much strength in the storytelling that you don't really notice. What you do notice is the size of the book (840 pages! 2 inches thick!) which makes it a little difficult to manipulate and read, but not enough to deter from its captivating story (and, on the positive side, it can help develop your forearms!). Therefore, if you are seriously into manga, A Drifting Life is a must. If you are not convinced, you should know that it has just won two Eisner awards: for the Best U.S. Edition of International Material (Asia category) and for the Best Reality-Based Work of the year.

A Drifting Life, story & art by Yoshihiro TATSUMI (edited by Adrian Tomine, translated by Taro Nettleton). Montreal, Drawn & Quarterly, 2009. Paperback, 840 pages, 6.125 x 8.25 in. (22.1 x 16.5 cm), b/w. ISBN: 9781897299746. $29.95 US / $36.95 CDN. Recommended for teenagers (14+). See a preview of the first chapter (from the NYT) and of pages 53-59 (on the publisher's website).
A Drifting Life © 2009 by Yoshihiro Tatsumi. © 2009 by Drawn & Quarterly for this english edition. All Rights Reserved.

More Yoshihiro TATSUMI books are available in translation. In English: Good-Bye and other stories (Catalan, 1988), The Push Man and other stories (D&Q, 2005), Abandon the Old in Tokyo (D&Q, 2006), Good-Bye (D&Q, 2008), Black Blizzard (D&Q, 2010); In French: Hiroshima (Artefact, 1983), Coups d'éclat (Vertige, 2003), Les larmes de le bête (Vertige, 2004), Good bye (Vertige, 2005), L'enfer (Cornélius, 2008).

Further readings: Yoshihiro TATSUMI official website, “Manifesto of a Comic-Book Rebel“ in New York Times (2009/04/14), review in Anime News Network (2009/07/04), and an interview in Manga.

Note: I am rather disappointed that Drawn & Quarterly did not even deign to answer my request for a review copy. Fortunately, Montreal (besides snobby publishers) has a great network of public libraries (free books!).

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