When an American journalist, remarking on Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s growing popularity in the United States, suggested that the manga master must be similarly well-known in his own country, Tatsumi laughed and explained that there are not, at present, any venues in Japan willing to publish his work. That being the case we must be particularly grateful to his Canadian publisher, Drawn & Quarterly.
Usually when a publisher picks up an arcane foreign artist we are likely to get one example, more or less well chosen, of that artist’s work. And then nothing more. Vertical, for example, another enterprising publisher concerned with things Japanese, brought us a single volume by Genichiro Takahashi, one of Japan’s most interesting postmodern writers, and then, apparently, lost interest.
Drawn & Quarterly’s treatment of Tatsumi couldn’t be more different. They committed themselves to bringing out a volume for each year of Tatsumi’s career, beginning with 1970. The fourth volume, Tatsumi’s manga memoir, “A Drifting Life,” appeared this year.
Tatsumi’s story of how he grew as a person and an artist is an insider’s view of how manga gets made; and because his account is honest, it is not in the slightest bit romantic. Tatsumi seems to have never struggled with parents who wanted him to get a “real job,” starved in a garret, been engaged in wild debauchery or, perhaps most remarkably, doubted his talent or his ability to make a living from it.
Thus Tatsumi turns the conventions of the artist’s memoir on its head: There’s little agony or ecstasy, and only a modest lust for life. Rather, the making of art, and of a career in art, is shown to be — as it most often is — lots of hard work and scrambling. And this, in place of a portrait of an ideal creator, is what Tatsumi gives us. He has not polluted his memoir with romantic melodrama; rather, he has told us, and shown us in appropriately low-key drawings, what it was like to be an artist in his time. This is why his memoir will endure.
Hiroshi Katsumi, as Tatsumi calls the character who stands in for him, is obsessed with the manga he is reading and producing. Fortunately, since no portrait of an artist (or anyone else) can be adequate without an account of the history through which they move, the artist presenting Katsumi’s development is able to see beyond his drawing board. He always makes sure that, as we move through Katsumi’s life, we understand the historical context of that life.
Thus the book opens with a single large frame filled with people, some in scraps of military uniform, clinging to an overcrowded streetcar. We see immediately that we are in the Occupation years, and indeed this is where, with Katsumi a teenager, the memoir begins.
Such historical snippets recur throughout the memoir and some are essential to understanding the ups and downs of the manga industry. When we read, for example, that in the mid-1950s, “there were still only 300,000 television subscribers nationwide [and that] TV was still beyond the reach of the masses,” we see that lack of significant competition accounts, in part, for the popularity of manga at that time.
We know, too, that television won’t remain out of the masses’ reach for much longer. Tatsumi complicates the frame by filling it with writer Soichi Oya complaining — on TV! — that “television is the intellectual scourge of 100 million Japanese.” As tempted as we might be to agree with Oya, we also recall that the same complaint has often been made — though probably not in manga — about manga.
Many of those who fretted about manga were particularly concerned with the effect they imagined such books might have on children. The carping of these guardians of morality had one positive effect: it pushed Tatsumi and like-minded artists to create a new style of manga known as gekiga, which is clearly differentiated in its themes, content, and the style of its drawing from comics intended for kids.
Much of “A Drifting Life” is taken up with Tatsumi’s account of the birth of this new kind of cartooning, the tension it creates with publishers, and the spats it gives rise to among the artists. Mostly, though, because Tatsumi is working in gekiga, whose birth he is writing about, “A Drifting Life” turns into an object lesson: How comics (comics, that is, for grownups) without romantic protagonists, without appreciable action and with drawings striking in their simplicity can be more compelling than offerings more childishly baroque.
“I’ve drifted along demanding an endless dream from gekiga,” Katsumi notes in the final frames of “A Drifting Life.” Readers will hope he speaks for Tatsumi when he adds “and I probably always will.”