Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A DRIFTING LIFE by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

A DRIFTING LIFE is a massive 856-page comic book by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, chronicling the early part of his career (or technically that of his doppelganger "Hiroshi Katsumi") in creating comic books in post-WWII Japan, from his teen years as a reader entering contests for the magazines until his mid-20s, in 1960.  The previous Tatsumi comics to be published in English are all from considerably after that period, circa 1970, so the work he talks about is unfamiliar, and there's obviously room for another volume or two if Tatsumi were to write it.

I wasn't that much of a fan of what I read of those previously translated Tatsumi comics. They were all collections of unrelated short stories, generally about working-class Japanese life, and I only read three or four stories from each of the collections. They had some points of interest, and it was certainly very nice to see Japanese comics that didn't fall into the standard categories that see English translation (no fantasy/sci-fi/horror elements, done in a few dozen pages instead of epic stories of thousands of pages). However, I heard that this new book was what all the hipsters were reading, and anyone who knows me is aware that hip is what I aspire to be, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

I did find it much more interesting than the previous Tatsumi work I read, and enjoyed most of it. It's obviously a long and detailed history about a short period in the career of someone who it seems was really a minor figure in the industry of the 1950s, but who certainly had some interesting things going on around him, and who thought a lot (sometimes it seems too much) about various aspects of what he was doing, both technical and philosophical. It's also an interesting look at a culture that certainly seems strange to someone both half a world and half a century removed, but with some oddly familiar resonances.

I was going to write a longer piece about the whole book, but there's probably been enough written about it already by those who know more about the Japanese comics than I do, so here are a few scenes I had scanned for that longer piece with a few quick comments.

Young "Katsumi" and his brother (who also becomes a comic artist) soak up the influence of early Osamu Tezuka, who of course is going to cast a shadow over any history of comics in Japan.

And in fact more than a shadow, as young Katsumi actually has some occasion to meet Tezuka soon after, which is a very entertaining chapter of the story. Much of his career as presented in the book is about artists trying to create what one calls "post-Tezuka" comics.

This bit cracked me up, since it reminds me of all the futile discussions (which I'll admit to sometimes engaging in, when I was young and stupid) about terminology like "comics", "comix", "graphic novels", genre vs. medium and all the rest. This is like something straight out of Scott McCloud comic...

It's interesting to see that he took some lessons from reading American comics of the era. Or, if that illustration is accurate, American comics from over 20 years in the future. Truly he was a visionary! Just goes to show that the shallow American understanding of the distinctions in Japanese comics history is reciprocated.

Quite a lot of the book goes into various aspects of the history and growth pains of comics in Japan in the 1950s, which has some interesting parallels with the American experience, although obviously with very different driving factors and results.

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