Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Drifting Life

A Drifting Life is a graphic novel memoir by acclaimed mangaka Yoshihiro Tatsumi. It is written similar to the traditional style of Japanese "I-novels," in which an author writes an autobiography in which the main character has a fictional name, providing a strange sense of distance between the author and himself. It recounts the story of Katsumi Hiroshi (Tatsumi-sensei's fictional name) and his love affair with manga, from being an ardent fan of Osamu Tezuka's works, to drawing four-panel gag manga himself, through his long and varied early work career, until he eventually embraces the style he helped pioneer: gekiga ("dramatic pictures").

This is a hefty tome (even longer than the latest hefty tome I reviewed, Osamu Tezuka's Ode to Kirihito), at well over 800 pages. The read goes pretty fast though: a lot of it does feel like an autobiography put into manga (or gekiga) form. The text is saturated with names of magazines, manga, publishers, artists, and other such things. This can make the reading dry and monotonous at times, as Tatsumi-sensei does not spend too much time delving into the reasons behind why he writes manga. Much of the story is strictly who he worked for, how he ended up working for that company, some notable works published by that company, and how he stopped working for the company. Of course, this all takes place in a long narrative, stretching for over a decade, starting at the end of WWII. It also surveys the development of the gekiga form that Tatsumi-sensei is famous for helping to create and popularize.

The art overall isn't bad; it doesn't stun me like Ode to Kirihito's did, but he didn't feel unrealistic and too rounded like Metropolis's. It fit the tone of realism without being too dark and gritty (even though I like dark and gritty). The pacing was pretty packed with all the names and dates and information, but it didn't feel too cramped or rushed (although the volume has a sizable appendix with even more information).

Overall, I wasn't too big a fan of it. I'm not a big autobiography reader, but I found a lot of people recommending this, so I decided to check it out. Basically, it is a straight story of Tatsumi-sensei's work, almost like a narrative resume, although that sounds kind of harsh. The narrative flows together nicely, even if I would lose track of who's who amidst the constant barrage of names. I was saddened by the lack of psychological insight or real character drama; there were some family conflicts and conflicts about ideology, but overall most of the tension was involving money and work. What I liked most about the work was that Tatsumi-sensei including historical events in his account as well. I could somewhat trace the development of postwar Japan as I read this book, and the inclusion of many events important the Japanese people and of many popular films and manga works was really intriguing to me. I also felt these were the times when Tatsumi-sensei's artistic abilities came into full view. My absolute favorite was when he incorporated Akira Kurosawa's film Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai); I've just recently seen that film, and when Tatsumi-sensei drew some of the scenes and characters from it, they looked almost identical to it (for instance, the depictions of Takashi Shimura and Seiji Miyaguchi). I also enjoyed the appearance of Osamu Tezuka in this work (since Tatsumi-sensei gained some early tutorship from him).

In conclusion, I'd have to say that I give Yoshihiro Tatsumi's A Drifting Life a 7/10. While I found the historical content very interesting and well-drawn, the story as a whole wasn't as intriguing to me, often for its lack of emotional and psychological aspects. If you are interested in the evolution of the gekiga style, or if you want to see the slow rise to fame of a mangaka, you should probably read this. If you're not extremely interested in those topics, I'd say this isn't a bad read, but it's not one I'd unconditionally recommend.

Thanks for reading. God Bless, and peace.

Nota Bene: All images are from Google Image Search.

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