Monday, April 20, 2009

A Drifting Life

This has already garnered attention from the critics and will continue to do so.  The praise is unexpected, after all, when it's aimed at Yoshiro Tatsumi, the father of gekiga and a now Drawn and Quarterly favorite artist.  His three short story collections have more than warranted the acclaim, trapped in their own steamy world of post-war Japan where violence, sexuality, depravity and disillusionment win out over hope and reprieve more often than not.  Where the lack of diversity of character designs gives power to the everyman, emphasizing how these tragedies could happen to any and everyone.

Yet there's not much of that here in Tatsumi's autobiographical work.  A sense of individual powerlessness and the overwhelming presence of Japan's growing industrial complex remains, but the atmosphere of those existential tales are left in favor of impassioned accounts of family life and a strong, obsessive love for the development of manga after World War II.

That gives an easy schism between apathy and enjoyment, actually; the book itself maintains a steady pace and, with little exception, never really treats any subject outside of manga -- or any incident or influence related to it -- with a sentimental eye.  A home robbery and the potential threat of Tatsumi's father being conned is of lower importance in comparison to Tatsumi's first encounters with the revered Osamu Tezuka, or Tatsumi discovering one of his projects torn in half by his brother (whose spiteful, early scenes superficially remind me of David B.'s Epileptic, though this issue is resolved rather early in comparison to that French comic).  This continues on and on with one-note pacing, never gaining or relenting its momentum until the last third of the story where the problems and rivalries between publishers and their own artists spark a more conventional conflict.

I've probably given the impression that I don't particularly care for it, which is only a half-truth.  The material has a certain dryness, but there's more than enough of interest with a bombardment of information pertaining to cultural development of Japan from the late 40s to the late 50s -- particularly film, which had a powerful impact on Tatsumi who would later integrate traits cinematic storytelling into manga.  The slow-burning climax also provides a more human interest into the story, resolving itself with one of Tatsumi's admiringly blunt metaphors connecting Japan's difficulties to not just manga's, but his own.

The manga has already received the Osamu Tezuka Cultural Award and will likely continue to see more and more accolades pushed on it (Eisner is going to be all over this, for sure).  I won't begrudge it; A Drifting Life is an ambitious, sometimes touching tale by one of the most important men in Japanese comics, a commemoration to the devotion and spirit that propelled the form into the monolith that it is today.


  1. I'm very much looking forward to this myself. There's something meditative about reading Tatsumi's work; it's something no other mangaka can do with quite the same skill.

    Plus it'll be nice to have a longer story from the man. I love his short stories, but always wished for something meatier.

  2. The amusing thing is that the short story format is something that Tatsumi attempts to break away from in his early days, but continually fails to do so. For as much ambition he has in a grander vision, it's the more condensed tales of everyday's (fucked-up) life that make him so compelling.

    Granted, I don't know how many long form manga he's done, but the impression I get is that his skills still lie with the shorts (particularly considering the structure here).