Portrait of the mangaka as a young man.
"Cicadas cried incessantly.” These three lonely words appear early in A Drifting Life, Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s masterful new graphic memoir, and flicker across the next few chapters like the fragment of a childhood dream. The year is 1945, and Japan’s emperor has just surrendered to the Allied forces, leaving the country economically battered. In the industrial city of Osaka, a young boy named Hiroshi Katsumi seeks refuge in his collection of manga, Japanese comics with the power to render him “virtually speechless. He’d seen many ‘great works of art’ in exhibitions and catalogs before, but never had he been so moved.” Hiroshi falls asleep every night on a pillow of comic books, while the striated thrum of the cicadas burbles up from the reeds under his window.
The tenor of the first 100 pages of A Drifting Life, with its muted grays and blacks, is a notable departure for the 74-year-old Tatsumi. His best fiction has heretofore been deeply dystopian: A laborer chops off his arm to earn insurance money for a greedy wife, a sewer worker steals valuable jewelry off the corpse of a dead baby, a woman is savaged by a hungry rat. To Tatsumi, traditional comic art was unable to accurately depict the violent realities of post-war Japan, so he turned to the grotesque and the absurd, dubbing his new style gekiga—in Japanese, “dramatic pictures.”
Beginning in 2005, with the help of Brooklyn artist Adrian Tomine, Drawn and Quarterly published three translated collections of Tatsumi’s gekiga work for American audiences. (Japanese comics are read from right to left, so the publisher had to flip the orientation of each page—no small task.) Now comes A Drifting Life—at 840 pages, it’s heavier than anything Tatsumi has ever written before, and more personal.
Katsumi’s story is unmistakably Tatsumi’s own: the crushing poverty of his youth, the tumultuous relationship with his brother, the rigors of the Allied occupation, the schoolyard bullying, the early stirring of talent. By the time he reaches his teens, Katsumi has formed a manga association, and is offloading his comics to a score of local magazines. One strip catches the attention of the legendary artist Osamu Tezuka, and Katsumi is invited to Tezuka’s home on the outskirts of Osaka.
“Stories that capture the minds of children all over Japan,” the boy marvels. “How amazing it must be to be the person creating them.” Under Tezuka’s tutelage, he begins to move away from four-panel works and toward the longer narratives that will characterize his later work. When he leaves for Tokyo to pursue the life of a full-time manga artist, Katsumi loses touch with Tezuka. But the relationship between teacher and student drives much of the emotional sweep of A Drifting Life, which effectively ends at a 1995 seven-year anniversary memorial service for Tezuka. “Time swallows up everyone, without distinction between the genius and ordinary,” Katsumi thinks. “A world of manga without its unparalled genius is a lonely place.”
These murmurs of nostalgia, from a writer nearing the end of his own career, are matched by frames filled with a strikingly lush beauty. Bodies press together in a crowded trolley car, a pair of frogs hides in the long grass near Katsumi’s grammar school, snowflakes coat a copse of flowers, an American jet plane hurtles overhead. When his brother maliciously tears up teenage Katsumi’s work, the young artist runs screaming out of his house and collapses in a nearby field. A murky twilight sets in and, with it, a swarm of fireflies. Katsumi’s face turns up into a broad smile; later, he dances among the ghostly white orbs, lost in a “magical scene.”
On the book’s final page, Katsumi looks back at his life and decides that his greatest memories—of love, friendship and growing old—have become inextricable from the art they helped inspire. “I’ve drifted along,” he sighs, “demanding an endless dream from gekiga. And I probably always will.”