Tatsumi, Yoshihiro (2009), A Drifting Life, Drawn and Quarterly
[Translated by Taro Nettleton]
Since I am generally decently well read, strange or unknown translations do not normally bewilder me. This book here, Tatsumi’s mammoth A Drifting Life, is different, since in what concerns comics and graphic novels I’m but a novice at best, a consequence of which is the lack of thorough comments on Tatsumi’s artwork in this review (but you can see a sample page here ). A Drifting Life is a graphic novel that an “ editor’s note” proclaims to be an autobiography from what appears to be one of the most important artists in Japanese comics. It was translated by Taro Nettleton, but the fact that we can read it now is mostly due to Adrian Tomine, who is the editor of a series of English publications of Tatsumi’s books, all with Drawn and Quarterly, a Canadian publisher. My edition is gorgeous, very beautiful, but not very forthcoming with information.
What’s the original title of the book? Tomine/Nettleton keep mum about it. Unless I’m mistaken, it’s Gekiga hyoryū, which means, I’m told, “A Gekiga Survivor”; the change in the title is fascinating, as it stresses a completely different aspect of the book. The original title does more justice to the book, but the English title, taking its cue from a passage in the third-to-last panel of the book, is more poetical, perhaps, and lends a much-needed coherence to the book. However, the book is not about a drifting life, it’s rather about a drifting career, about the development of an artist and the industry he worked in the industry that we watch him help shape.
The name of the protagonist is close enough to that of the author to make the dissemblement obvious: Hiroshi Katsumi. Hiroshi, when the book opens, is a teenager, who is obsessed with comics, especially the Japanese variety called Manga. Both he and his sickly brother are avid readers of Manga books and turn out to be talented artists in the genre themselves. When they grow up, developing a love for the genre, an important medium, besides books, which never went out of style, were Manga magazines, which solicited short strips from its young readers and rewarded publication with a medal. From the start, we are told of the way that constrictions of the medium afflict the creative process, as Hiroshi ponders the difference between work on short four-panel pieces and work on longer graphic novels. Incidentally, at this point, I felt left out in the rain by the editor once more. The term “graphic novel” appeared in English in the 1970s and has ever since been the subject of much controversy. As far as I know, the Japanese tradition of using the novel format for comics is older than the English, but Nettleton’s and Tomine’s decision to nonchalantly include this term in the thought processes of a young boy in the early postwar period is problematic, and the reader is completely on his own at this point. No footnotes, no explanations, nothing.
The first chapters are significant in still more ways. For one thing, the first six panels of the book are not primarily concerned with Hiroshi and his story: they relate the situation in Japan directly after the war, linking Hiroshi directly to a historical context:
Hiroshi was ten years old, the war ended during his fourth summer vacation
As we meet Hiroshi, he’s already a Manga fan, but the novel makes no attempt to tell us anything about the war or anything else that happened during that period. The first chapter’s title, “The Birth of Manga”, links the rise of the art form directly to the rise of the nation after the war; thus, when Hiroshi becomes a Manga artist, a circle of sorts is closed. These three elements are shown to be interlinked, interdependent, over and over.
One of the most important factors in the early chapters is their demonstration of how young the early practitioners of the art form were. As we see Hiroshi and his friends establish an alternative tradition to the Manga mainstream, we can’t forget these early chapters. There, even as we watch Hiroshi adulate his heroes, chief among which would be Osamu Tezuka, who debuted in 1946, we are frequently reminded of the fact that they, too, are barely of age. The first hint of this is offered when we are told, as Hiroshi, on his way to school, crosses through the yard of a medical school, that it is this very school, where, at the time, Tezuka was enrolled as a student. When, later, Hiroshi and his friends start publishing work that pushes the envelope in a young but already firmly set genre, they, too, are just of age. The youthful energy, the anger, the hunger for something new, are portrayed as the most important factors in creating art.
Refreshingly, in all the discussions of the artistic achievement of Manga artists and the development of the genre, Tatsumi never discusses talent or other innate factors. Instead, he focuses on two things, both of which have already been mentioned. One is the energy and the questing mind of the artist. This is shown to be important on a personal level: Hiroshi, growing up and becoming successful, has ups and downs in his creative confidence and the quality and quantity of his output. To a large extent, this is explained through the presence of that energy or the lack of it. The other important factor is the medium in which Mangas were distributed. The difference between large format books, short books, short stories, longer novels is not merely a marketing distinction. It directly affects artistic output. To write a short, humorous four panel piece calls for different techniques than, perhaps, a 130 page novel. As Hiroshi grows into his own as an artist he commences what his brother calls wasting panels: he incorporates cinematic effects and techniques into comics, taking several panels to describe a short action, so as to depict it in the most vivid way imaginable. This is difficult to achieve in a story that runs slightly less than 20 pages, because you need more room to develop a story, if the action is to have so much breathing space. So, technically, it’s restraining, but at the same time it opens up new possibilities because you can invoke a slew of new moods, and thus enlarge the kinds of stories you can tell. Hiroshi is a generous narrator, freely attributing innovations to his fellow artists, recounting his jealousy as well as his admiration and, most importantly, his urge to improve, to broaden his palette.
Discussions about the mechanics of Hiroshi’s art are at the heart of this book, which, as I mentioned above, is called “A Gekiga Survivor” in the original. Gekiga, according to a friend of Hiroshi’s, is NOT Manga, but when I keep using the term Manga as a catch-all term, I follow Hiroshi’s distinction, who understands Gekiga as a kind of Manga. This may seem like a superfluous observation, but the mere fact that the book would take the time and room to entertain a long discussion about the question whether Gekiga is Manga or not points to the importance of the question of genre; not, I might add, because Tatsumi wants to stress the permanence and importance of genre limits. On the contrary, his careful use of distinctions and genre allows him to show how Hiroshi’s and his friends’ work was at the eye of a cultural storm, taking hints and aspirations from ‘traditional’, Tezuka-style Manga, from movies, hard-boiled novels (especially Spillane’s) and individual inspiration. Genre is shown to be an economical factor, but also a fact of culture, something that fuels literary dynamics.
Tatsumi’s art in the book serves as a perfect way to transmit this. Tatsumi frequently quotes from these sources. Quotes how you may ask? He recreates, in black and white, images from movies, he re-draws panels from artists that he references. They are not cut out and pasted in, they are drawn by the artist, in short: quoted (although here, too, the documentation by the editor is severely lacking). A Drifting Life makes the utmost of the fact that it is a graphic novel and not prose. When, at one point, Hiroshi reflects upon the way that the amount of detail in a panel makes a reader read slower or quicker, that an artist can thus manipulate the speed with which his readers progress through the book, we, the readers, immediately read the book with a different awareness. When a certain brand of satirical humor, contained in certain graphic quirks, is discussed, many a reader will catch himself looking through sections he’s already read, just to re-evaluate them in a new light.
I could go on for ages, because this book is rich, extremely well told, and infinitely fascinating. The narrative is not suspenseful, but it’s full of intricate symbols and foreshadowing, of developments and reversals. I suspect that this book will open up new vistas with each rereading. It is about the possibilities and the necessities of art when the publisher and the artist have to live off it. It refrains from opening a simple and simplistic opposition between greedy publishers and the poor writers, on the contrary, we are apprised of the fact that the progression of not just an artist but his whole art form is inextricably bound to the fact that money is made off it; several times we see the history of Gekiga make a sudden jump forward because the artists are trying to surmount an obstacle. What happened to Gekiga after the 1960s? The book doesn’t tell us, nor does the editor or translator. In the context of the book, I found it significant, that this book, too, was published in several installments, in a Manga magazine., which I found out trawling the net for the information that Tomine denied me. If this book has a weakness, this lack of information is it.
In a way, this is reflected in the choice of a title that I complained about earlier. As I pointed out, Tatsumi’s book does not show us his drifting life, his main character merges into the culture he was influenced by and that he, in turn, influenced. The drifting is Hiroshi’s life as an artist, it’s the drifting of the group of writers who were to identify as members of the Gekiga workshop, drifting as a cultural dynamic. I suspect that the fact that Tomine read the book as narrowly autobiographical led to his lack of explanations. It is generally called an autobiography because Tomine’s short, largely uninformative “Editor’s Note” informs us that it is one and that
the author has chosen to alter some characters’ names, most notably his own.
What’s the use of that, if the author’s name is on the cover? Oh, I know. Because it’s not an autobiography. It may follow Tatsumi’s biography rather closely, but the artist’s decision to withdraw his own name from the book suggests that it’s not, in fact, an autobiography.
I know that many memoirs and autobiographies are in equal parts portraits of a time as they are portraits of a person. But what we’re up against here is a direct decision of the author. He put his name on the cover, but struck it from the book. When he depicts Hiroshi’s older self, the face he draws looks a lot like the author’s photo in the back of the book, but he hachures over it, so as to hide it from the reader. These are clear decisions of the book and it means selling the artist’s work short when we reduce it to the limits of that genre, and act as if there wasn’t any difference to other proponents of it.
Hiroshi’s life is shown to be in service to his art and his fellow artists, something that is reflected on a different level when, many years into his career, he takes on an unpaid job as an editor. The novel is so well constructed, with all its levels reflecting each other that the more profitable reading would look for inward references instead of streamlining a reading as autobiographical. Reading a text as autobiography (which is how genre, generally works) means involving it in a web of references, claims to truth etc.; there is a good reason to accept the narrow definition that Lejeune famously put forward in the autobiographical pact, which (if I remember it correctly) hinges on a correspondence of names. So, I think it’s not an autobiography, not in the common sense, anyway, but it’s still a biographical novel (in the sense of a novel that follows a person’s life, fictitious or not) that shows us the development of an art form through the development of a small group of friends, who grow up in post-WWII Japan and dream of becoming Manga artists, or rather: Gekiga artists:
I’ve drifted along, demanding an endless dream from Gekiga
the protagonist tells us at the end, continuing:
And I…probably…always will.
This endless dream creates a book that is like a long, meandering stream, like a slow burning fire that explodes sometimes in moments of illumination. In the last chapter, the protagonist, his face carefully shaded, another evasion from the autobiographical glare, attends the funeral of Tezuka, bringing the whole book full circle. The book did not, however, work towards that ending; you don’t read it, breathlessly, to finish it. No, here, as in many other good books, the journey is the reward, the glimpse into the birth both of a culture and of an artist in it. This is an incredible book. I have read few like it. Not Tatsumi’s drifting life, but his life of drafting, of drafting panel after panel, story after story, is an inspiration.