Tatsumi Yoshihiro’s A Drifting Life is all the proof anyone would ever need that comics can be serious art. It will show up at the top of year end lists and on syllabi. The fanciest of blurbs will be written about it. Comic fans will hound the unsuspecting at parties and in their homes to read it. Don’t let that stop you.
For my part, I’m trying not to let how good it is stop me from writing about it. Not because I can only write about flawed work or things I want sharpen whatever wit I might have on, but because Yoshihiro Tatsumi has written an astonishing memoir. It’s deft. It’s deeply moving and seemingly effortless. It’s mature. It’s so many things comics, even literary comics, often aren’t. It’s so good I’m having a hard time writing anything about it beyond that it is a masterpiece. I’ve been silenced but I need to find something more than 800 synonyms for “good.”
And yes, the book requires deploying literary terms. It’s an autobiographical künstlerroman, a story about an artist’s development, which is a subgenre of bildungsroman, a novel about a character’s development from child to adult, and I have generally found bildungsromane annoying. They are too often ingrown with misunderstood male protagonists and sketchy gender stuff—which now that I think about it, describes far too many alternative autobiographical comics. But A Drifiting Life isn’t annoying.
The book begins on August 12, 1945 when Tatsumi’s re-named self, Katsumi Hiroshi, is ten and Emperor Hirohito surrenders to Allied Forces. It follows Katsumi’s life under the American Occupation, through reconstruction to 1960, when Katsumi joins a student demonstration at the Diet. (There’s an epilogue set at the 1995 Tezuka Osamu memorial). Tatsumi uses historical, cultural and personal markers as he traces Katsumi’s pursuit of gekiga or, “dramatic pictures,” a longer, more serious form than the four-panel gag manga of the time. Katsumi writes in the Gekiga Workshop/Gekiga Kobo manifesto:
[S]tory manga has been vitalized through the influence exerted by the supersonic development of other media such as film, television, and radio. This vitalization has given birth to a new genre, which we have named “gekiga.” Manga and “gekiga’ differ in methodology, but perhaps more importantly in their readerships. The demand for manga, written for adolescents…has never been answered, because there has never been a forum for such works. This hitherto neglected reader segment is “gekiga’s” intended target (852).
Gekiga parallels other 20th Century art movements—Imagism, Cubism, Dada, the French New Wave—with a manifesto, flagship magazines and an artist cabal. Reading about manga in the 1940s and 1950s reminds me of art histories like Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation, but the cafes are noodle houses and the artistic debates concern manga. And unlike textual histories, there is an immediacy to seeing Katsumi talk craft with Tezuka Osamu and live in a shared apartment with Saito Takao (Golgo 13).
The Workshop’s influence was so pervasive that gekiga’s almost invisible now. Gekiga artists created a cinematic, multipanel style. They invented speedlines and sound characters. They used silence. But their influence was also so pervasive that parents groups worried about gekiga‘s effect on children. Restrictions were placed on comics’ form, “Any book with pages, two thirds or more of which is without text, is immoral” (815).
Katsumi was surprised and his surprise reinforces my sense of his insularity. As the cicadas buzz summer after summer, Katsumi constantly thinks about manga and gekiga. He engages other artists, but seems to have no sense of their impact on manga, on fans or fans’ concerned parents. Katsumi struggles with being an editor and a creator, even considering abandoning gekiga, until, after a screening of Purple Noon, he drifts into the crowd of students on their way to the Diet. Moved by the demonstration’s intensity, he realizes, “I’ll never be done with gekiga!” (828)
The Watchmen is often mentioned as a story that could only be done in comics form. A Drifting Life is a memoir that is more arresting for having been done as gekiga. Tatsumi uses the effects Katsumi wants to create as he writes about his own life. Long silent, cinematic takes. A blackened face representing a psychological state. Recurring themes like the sound of insects. Tatsumi joins letters, drawings of famous singers and wrestlers, film scenes, movie posters and detailed Osaka and Tokyo landscapes with the expressive, pared down drawing style he uses for the characters. It’s seamless. The historical material shows the passage of time while Katsumi ages so organically it is impossible to find a moment of transformation from ten-year-old boy to tall, heavy-faced adult. That, by itself is an astonishing accomplishment. I’m not sure Tatsumi’s memoir could be so well done in any other medium. There’s no sign of effort, though twelve years seems a short time to produce such an exquisite book. It’s long but almost weightless as a read with nice, quiet moments of reflection. I like the silence and space, the fireflies and the sound of cicadas.
Carol Borden is “gekiga’s” intended target.