A Drifting Life

June 22, 2009

If you were wondering why my reviews were kind of slack this week, here’s your answer: I was reading the 850-page history of manga as seen in the life of Yoshihiro Tatsumi.  Also, I started a new job, but somehow, A Drifting Life made more of an impact on me.

Wow.  This wasn’t at all what I had expected from the story of the life of Yoshihiro Tatsumi.  It’s more like an extremely engrossing history of the beginnings of manga after the end of World War II.  It also serves as an interesting guide to the culture of Japan after the war, since details like popular styles and news stories are included periodically to give the story context, I suppose, but even better is the detailed discussion of cinema in both the US and Japan, since watching movies is linked inextricably to young Hiroshi’s work.  The movies serve mostly as inspiration, but the themes and cinematic techniques pop up for discussion in work from time to time.

Reading this came at a good time, because I’ve been obsessed with finding older series lately out of an interest in seeing how art styles developed.  This book literally starts at the beginning, just after World War II, and shows several examples through the years of art styles and series taken directly from the works themselves and not just imitated.  It’s truly fascinating.  Hiroshi (the name Tatsumi uses for himself in the work) gets his start by submitting and winning contests for 4-panel gag strips in newspapers and magazines in grade school and middle school, then moves to book-length children’s stories for the rental market in high school.  After he finishes high school, he’s hired to draw detective stories, and from there develops an interest in serious stories, something that wasn’t terribly popular at the time among all the other work aimed at children.  For the serious stories, he begins incorporating more cinematic techniques, like the use of panels without dialogue and more experimental angles from film, and from there he and a group of like-minded artists working for the same publisher began drawing short stories for a book called “Shadow” (not a magazine, still a rental book), and from there the gekiga movement starts.  It’s not until the late 50s-early 60s that the work starts to appear in magazines, and the book rental market is still alive and well when the story wraps up in the early 60s.

My interest in this was entirely form-related, as this is the first time I’ve literally seen the evolution of manga art over the years.  The 4-panel work shown early on in the book are literally newspaper comic strips, and are comprable/as lame as something like Garfield.  Sazae-san, mentioned several times, may still run in Japanese newspapers.  I’ve never seen a Sazae-san strip, but they look something like the example in this article from the Overlooked Manga Festival.  The “correct” way to do a 4-panel manga in that Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga excerpt may as well be a real Sazae-san strip, from what I understand.

Strangely, all the book art we see, from the late 40s through where the story stops in the early 60s, has a very cartoony appearance, even the gekiga work.  Aside from technique and composition, I find it interesting that styles in character design didn’t evolve very much over the span of the 15 years covered in the series.  Most would say it grew out of Tezuka, which is probably true (he was the big name throughout the entire book, even when he wasn’t so much the ideal anymore), but Tezuka’s early art is based heavily on Disney and Max Fleischer cartoons.  Even more incredibly, American comics come up a couple times, and Hiroshi doesn’t really seem to look to them for gekiga even though the contemporary stories in things like Action Comics and Detective Comics or Entertaining Comics would have been more mature, both story and art-wise, than what was being produced in Japan.  He does point out that American comics are hard to read, in a way, because they tell through narration rather than showing through action, and it bogs them down in text.  He also points out that the action scenes suffer particularly from this, because what should be a surprise punch winds up taking a long time to play out reading-wise, and that the moment would also move a lot quicker if the art was simplified and your eye wasn’t caught up in the background.

Of course, contemporary manga looks almost nothing like the examples we see in this book (including the artist’s own work from that period compared to the art in A Drifting Life).  Perhaps the most incredible thing of all is how little American superhero comics have changed over the past 60 years.  I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, it just suddenly occurred to me while I was writing this.  It’s incredible to me since I didn’t think much about this after being so hung up over the lack of changes in character design.

The best two pages in the book are when Takao Saito wanders into Hiroshi’s apartment, reads a Mickey Spillane novel, and then the narration mentions that it changed Saito’s work forever and that Duke Togo was something of a direct answer to Mike Hammer.  It was like flipping a light switch, because it was both mind-blowing amazing and just made so much sense.

Lots of artists are name-dropped, but unfortunately the only names that seemed to have weathered time and translation are Tatsumi himself, Tezuka, Fujiko Fujio, Takao Saito, and Sanpei Shirato (who is name-dropped towards the end, but doesn’t appear).  Kazuo Koike may have been name-dropped at some point too, but I may also have hallucinated that.  Hiroshi, Saito, and an artist named Masahiko Matsumoto are the core three artists at Hinomaru Bunko and later of mature anthologies like Shadow, City, and Skyscraper and the three that appear to head the gekiga movement.  Hiroshi’s brother, writing under the penname Shoichi Sakurai, is also a member of the movement.  It was actually kind of touching the way the two brothers did everything together from the very beginning, from the 4-panel comics to the gekiga at the end of the book.  I liked that Okimasa was always the one that Hiroshi went to for critiques and commentary first, and I was quite happy when Okimasa quit his job in order to write manga, because it seemed pretty sad that he wasn’t doing the thing he loved best while Hiroshi lived his dream.

One thing I thought was pretty funny was the way that Takao Saito was described.  One character charitably mentions that “he likes to talk about himself,” and several other characters mention that he is extremely full of himself.  Tatsumi, for his part, actually doesn’t portray him as particularly annoying or anything other than a fairly successful manga artist and a close friend/associate… but the claims made by the other characters seem to be substantiated in some strange comments Saito makes in interviews I’ve read.  I was also very amused by the fact that Takao Saito is drawn with very thick eyebrows in A Drifting Life.

Aside from the movies and events giving the series a sense of time and place, literally the only thing that interests Hiroshi is drawing manga.  He goes through several ups and downs through the years in the book, and the book is good at showing both triumphs and lapses in judgement.  The one thing is that the story is kind of quiet about Hiroshi’s success.  It sounds like some of his book work that got published just before he moved to Tokyo and started doing magazines and anthologies exclusively was extraordinarily influential to many artists, and the gekiga artists are occasionally mentioned as famous or notable… but not a lot of detail is actually given on their success and popularity.  Perhaps this was Tatsumi being modest, but I was always a bit taken aback when a hint as to how successful or popular the proto-gekiga and gekiga works were were dropped.  I would have liked to have seen more on how others were influenced by it, too, but this was already a pretty ambitious book, so I can’t complain too much.

It’s interesting to see how success handicaps his creativity towards the end of the book, too.  It is obvious that he is getting somewhat popular when publishers begin requesting more and more work from him… and I was continuously taken aback when Hiroshi kept taking on the work.  It catches up to him, and towards the end of the book he burns out and actually quits the Gekoga group he founds with all the artists from Hinomaru Bunko and the original Shadow anthology crew.  At the height of his insane workload period, he was only drawing what were described as stories of poor quality that were done merely to meet deadlines for magazines and anthologies, and he found himself without the time to experiment and push the limits of gekiga, as he had been doing all his life, and he especially laments the fact he can’t find the time to do a book-length work, something he hasn’t done in years at that point.

The epilogue takes place at the 7-year anniversary of Tezuka’s death, and an adult Hiroshi (drawn with a shadow over his face) is overcome at the memorial service and leaves early to reflect on his contribution to manga compared to Tezuka’s own.  The last frame is of Hiroshi, discussing how he will always demand impossible dreams of gekiga, sitting at a coffee table.  I like that the last page of the book has a photo of Tatsumi from a similar angle.

This was surely one of the most informative comics I’ve ever read.  It’s not for the casual reader, but I was overwhelmed and fascinated by absolutely every bit of information it contains.  There’s just not a lot of praise I can shower on it, because it is what it is, which is absolutely incredible.  That it is framed and contained within Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s life story is even more incredible, as it’s hard for me to imagine… well, a lot of this stuff, but mostly jumping headfirst into and shaping a world that you find yourself so in love with.

7 Responses to “A Drifting Life”

  1. […] (Slightly Biased Manga) Julie on vols. 13 and 14 of D.Gray-Man (Manga Maniac Cafe) Connie on A Drifting Life (Slightly Biased Manga) Connie on vol. 2 of Future Lovers (Slightly Biased Manga) Ysabet Reinhardt […]

  2. Cyphomandra Says:

    I just finished this (have been lugging it around on the bus for the last week or so, good for the upper body as well as the mind) and thought it was amazing. It’s got a fascinating shape to it as a story – I don’t think I’ve read anything else recently that got across so much of the day-to-day mundanities of things, while keeping the story interesting and conveying an awful lot of information, in this case about manga and gekiga.

    And yet I still wanted more! I really wanted to see more about the changes in style, both in terms of art and narrative – one of the things Tatsumi’s character keeps talking about is wanting to do longer narratives, rather than the stories, and as that’s what I prefer to read I wanted to hear more about how these started becoming an option. But also, as you said, the references to movies that run right through the story, and implementing movie techniques – I wanted more like the bit where he slows down the action, cutting between the wheels and the guy waiting. I really feel lacking in vocabulary when it comes to describing this sort of thing, or even details like panel layout, and I always end up using movie references because at least I have slightly more idea about that (maybe it’s time to re-read Scott McCloud, although I don’t actually remember that much about those ideas in particular). Also, the use of sound effects is one of the things that really struck me when I shifted to reading manga (and threw me when I went back – I remember reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home after a manga binge, and feeling like I had cotton wool stuck in my ears), and I would love to know more about whether that’s always been there, or if that was also an innovation.

    I loved the brother. I thought he was a great character.

    American superhero comics not changing – again, I don’t think I know enough about the art, but definitely the narrative model for these is why I no longer read them – the never-ending storyline, with reset always available. I started reading in British comics, and I’ve often felt that manga was more like them in some ways (black and white art, but also something like Misty, a girls’ horror comic from the 70s, which mixed short stories that all tended to end badly and multipart narratives where good usually got around to triumphing seems to hang around when I’m reading something like After School Nightmare).

    I found the epilogue very sad, somehow, particularly with Tatsumi scribbling over the face of his character. I was really hoping I would find a “to be continued”, actually – I’d love to read another couple of volumes going on with things. However, as I haven’t actually done more than flick through The Push Man, maybe I should start by reading his other translations.

    (sorry for going on all over your comments! I really enjoyed reading this, and no-one else I know has read it, although I plan to force it on at least one person very soon)

  3. Connie Says:

    Oh, I don’t mind the long comment at all! And yikes, I think my comment wound up being too long, too, but that’s all right. When I read A Drifting Life, I could not keep silent about it, and only had my roommate to talk to about it when I finished. I think he got awful sick of hearing about gekiga and old manga after awhile.

    Yeah, wanting more was the main feeling I went away with, too. Panel layout especially, as you say. The Tezuka manga I’ve seen from that time period are dynamic in a way that is very much like watching stills from a movie scene, it’s kind of weird and novel to read them since they are quaint and the motion is captured so well, in an extremely amazing and excessive way. I can see why Tatsumi was criticized for “wasting space” since what I’ve seen of the very early Tezuka work does spend a lot of time on strange things, but it makes me want to see Tatsumi’s work even more, since I know the techniques would have grown more sophisticated and been informed by more action movies by the time he was drawing them. I suspect a lot of detail may have been left out of A Drifting Life with the assumption that the Japanese audience might be familiar with the history, and yet there was so much there that being completely uninformed was no problem.

    I was really disappointed that it cut off where it did, because he had just started talking about meeting Sanpei Shirato, which is the beginning of Garo and the underground manga movement. I would have absolutely loved to hear more about that, especially how things like that tied into the student movement at the time. It was strange that it cut off right there, because I imagine that being another fascinating chapter of his life. I think the transition from that protest to Tezuka’s funeral made the epilogue a lot more jarring and sad, too.

    I have an embarrassing lack of knowledge of European comics, mostly because the ones I want to read seem to be out of print and expensive. I don’t know much about British comics at all, but Misty sounds like my sort of thing. It makes me think of a mix of House of Mystery and the weird 60s romance comic serials I’ve read bits and pieces of. I like the American horror anthology series I’ve read, but I can agree with Tatsumi’s view on them 100%. I’d be very interested in seeing the European counterparts now, just to see how they compare.

    If you’re interested, I just read a book on Tezuka called “God of Comics – Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-WWII Manga” that goes very, very indepth with adaptations of cinematic techniques to manga. Tatsumi’s method of telling the story, where he talks about the movies and how they influenced him and his work is infinitely more interesting, but there were lots of discussions in that book about how Tezuka started incorporating a deep focus-type technique in manga after it started appearing in Hollywood movies, and how movies may have influenced his busy crowd scenes, and how he “quoted” scenes from movies. It has a side-by-side comparison of a “direct quote” where he concludes one of his stories with a scene identical to the ending of The Third Man. It was pretty fascinating. That book also discusses a Tezuka autobiography manga that sounds an awful lot like A Drifting Life that I would absolutely love to get my hands on.

    And also from the manga nonfiction I’ve read, you might like “Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics,” which is a really old book (I think the first edition came out before I was born), but still very good. I was thinking of writing about it soon, but there’s a section on sound effects in manga and how they got to their modern state. You’re right about that, too, I more or less stopped noticing them in manga, but I definitely miss them when they’re absent in other comics.

  4. Cyphomandra Says:

    Ooh, recommendations – thanks! It looks like “Manga! Manga! etc” is still in print, actually, so I’ll see if I can track it down (although I can see myself having conversations with bookshop staff about the exclamation marks…). I presumed at least some of the sound effects relate to the onomatopoeic bits of Japanese – I’ve forgotten the name for this, but I remember a tutor I had who had a whole book of sound vocab – and it would be really interesting to see how they got into comics.

    The Tezuka book would make me feel guilty for failing to read most Tezuka and not having seen The Third Man :)

    Yeah, I presume that A Drifting Life assumes a lot more familiarity on the part of its audience. I wanted to know about the snow storm story Tatsumi does, for example – what was it that was so impressive to the other mangaka? Layout? Pacing? Arrgh.

    My sister and I got very good at combing second-hand shops, school fairs etc for comics – she currently has all the boxes of them, because I keep shifting countries and have more than enough stuff already. However, Misty at least has a website – http://mistycomic.co.uk . Originally all the back issues were up (unfortunately, this was when I had a dial-up connection, and I didn’t get very far), but then the original owners of the magazine showed up and argued rather vigorously over copyright. However, if you go into “Cavern of Dreams”, there are scans up of some of the longer storylines. Sadly, they have yet to put up the one about a swim suit that made the wearer hallucinate sharks chasing them, thus making them win all their races (controlled by evil scientists), and I can’t see any of the other ones I never tracked down endings for, but Winner Loses All is about a girl who sells her soul to the devil to win an Olympic medal in showjumping and save her drunk and depressed father, Moonchild is psychic powers and a teenage outcast, and Four Faces of Eve has a main character created from the bodies of four dead girls by non-ethics board approved surgery.

    And I have tracked down v1 & 2 of From Eroica with Love and am wondering just how long the unfortunately named psychic teenagers are going to hang around (at least as far as page 17, apparently)…

  5. Connie Says:

    Oh, wow, thanks! Misty sounds great, and I’ll check out the website. It sounds like exactly my sort of thing, the plots seem way more outrageous than the EC comics and other things I was imagining they were similar to. I think I’m going to have to read the storylines on the website on my PC, because the resolution on my laptop is giving me problems reading them. I think the one about the girl selling her soul to the devil for an olympic medal in showjumping is going to be the first story I check out.

    Fair enough on the Tezuka book. For what it’s worth, most of what’s covered isn’t translated into English, and whenever anything is discussed the author does a pretty good job of walking you through what’s going on. I even liked the chapter on animation, which I almost skipped, but was funny because apparently a lot of animation critics blame Tezuka and his company Mushi Pro for inventing a lot of the cheapest animation techniques and lazy shortcuts that are used to this day in animation. I had to laugh and look up an old episode of Astro Boy to see how bad it was.

    And ouch, those first volumes of From Eroica With Love. The psychic teens are only really in the first story. Caesar sticks around for the second story, but is unconscious almost the entire time. They come up briefly in the third story, but are literally never mentioned again after that first volume. Hilariously, it ends on a cliffhanger that is also never spoken of again, and the second volume starts in on what’s normal for the rest of the series (avoid the unrelated Ivy Navy one-shot in the back, I read it for the first time last month and it was about as terrible as I had imagined). The awesome Trans-Europe Express story starts in volume 3 and finishes in volume 4, and the end of that story was what made me love the series forever.

  6. Pirkaf Says:

    Fantastic book and a damn good review. BTW, Kazuo Koike was mentioned indeed.. ^_^

  7. Pirkaf Says:

    BTW I disagree that American superhero comics didn’t evolve (I wouldn’t have written this sentence several years ago, but since then I’ve read really many X-men stories and some related comics, mostly Marvel). Everything evolves and so do superhero comics. But they do (quite ironically) evolve by incorporating many techniques from manga, which is obvious from reading a recommendable book named Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud.

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