A good chunk of my month has been taken up with Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s monumental manga memoir A Drifting Life, which is a brick of a book published by Drawn and Quarterly. Tatsumi is the founder of gekiga (“dramatic pictures”), a self-conscious attempt to create a genre distinct from manga (“whimsical pictures”) for mature readers. The majority of A Drifting Life is about the creation of this new artistic movement – it’s a comic about comics, where the author’s family, relationships and feelings are refracted through his struggles with artistic expression and the somewhat cut-throat world of post-war manga publishing.
It is in effect a history of Japanese comics from a single perspective – taking in the influence of kamishibai street theatre, television and cinema – although the biggest influence turns out to be Ozamu Tezuka, who revolutionised the medium when he was still a medical student, and who Tatsumi’s protagonist Hiroshi meets as a schoolboy. In some respects Tezuka repaid the favour in later life – his best books (Ode to Kirihito, MW, Book of Human Insects, Apollo’s Song) are dark, sometimes gruesome stories very much in the gekiga vein.
Tatsumi breaks up the narrative only to signpost historical milestones that would have made an impression on the protagonist growing up – many of which have an undercurrent of the nation recovering its sense of pride (mainly through cultural and sporting achievement) after the humiliation of defeat in the second world war. Other than these asides, the story is relentlessly focussed on the hero’s all-consuming obsession with manga and his attempts to break into the industry, first with gag strips for kids before trying to expand the boundaries of the genre.
The title of the book gives a sense of the flavour, in that Hiroshi pinballs between different publishers, colleagues and rivals, and his developing style is a product of instinct and accident as much as it is the conscious application of a theory. In fact, the book is pretty vague about what gekiga actually means, and is candid in showing how the group of artists around Hiroshi argued bitterly about what qualifies and what doesn’t under the category. To some degree the genre is a product of ‘scenius’ following the distant example of Tezuka’s genius. Hiroshi is the first among equals in a collective that have their work published in the same magazines, rather than being the founder and leader of an artistic movement.
All of this may sound pretty niche unless you have an interest in the (now pretty ancient) history of manga, but actually the book is supremely readable. Even the confusing cut and thrust of Hiroshi’s dealings with publishers, which take up most of the latter half of the book, are strangely absorbing. Part of this may be down to structure (short, digestible chapters), style (clear, unfussy linework) and tone (understated, straight, matter-of-fact). Tatsumi has been drawing comics constantly since he was a teenager in the 1950s so he knows what he’s doing. His best trick is to take the everyday feel of his story and heighten it to produce quietly powerful moments of epiphany – a skill that has endeared him to Western practitioners of the ‘graphic novel’ like Adrian Tomine.
One example will suffice. Below is my favourite page in the book:
This is probably as good a manifesto for comics as you’re likely to get. The point about the infinite canvas in the first panel has been made many times before – the imagination is a realm of total freedom whereas our everyday world is constrained by natural and human laws. But the second panel shows that we are not blank slates creating at random, but instead are influenced by what we find around us. And the third panel shows that the act of recreating and transforming preexisting material into something new provides a satisfaction that is difficult to achieve elsewhere in life, where happiness is dependent on factors which are mostly out of our direct control.
Tatsumi’s point is a simple one, perhaps, but it’s rare to find the motivations behind the artistic process so perfectly illustrated. The circularity is two-fold – the creator starts with a blank sheet of paper in the first panel and ends with a full one in the third, but that sheet of paper also becomes the material in the second panel, which is used by other creators to arrive at their own third panels. The book ends with Tatsumi’s reflections about the never-ending nature of the process – gekiga is an ‘endless dream’, not only indefinable but always to some degree unobtainable. There is “a certain level of satisfaction” in a life devoted to it, but it’s never complete.