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.