Manga Review – A Drifting Life

Tatsumi Yoshihiro.  A Drifting Life. Ed. Adrian Tomine.  Trans. Taro Nettleton.  Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2009.

Tatsumi Yoshihiro.  Gekiga hōryū.  2 Volumes.  Tokyo: Seirinkōgeisha, 2008.

Ryan Holmberg

Since A Drifting Life has been out now for over two years in North America, over a year in France, over two in Spain, and over three in Japan, let me make this review into something more annotative than introductory.

At the time of writing in autumn 2011, Tatsumi Yoshihiro’s autobiography in comics form has gone through multiple printings in Japan and North America. He has won the three top industry prizes – the Angouleme, the Tezuka, the Eisner – with A Drifting Life itself recipient of the last two. It, along with a handful of Tatsumi’s short stories published by Drawn & Quarterly, has inspired an animated film, Eric Khoo’s TATSUMI, which debuted at Cannes in May 2011. Ahead of the movie’s release in Japan, Seirinkōgeisha has published a collection of the individual comics animated in Khoo’s movie. In late March 2011, the Japanese television station WOWWOW aired “The Godfather of Gekiga,” a celebratory documentary of the artist focusing on the latter 1950s and the period when he, Matsumoto Masahiko, Saitō Takao, and others publishing with Osaka’s Hinomaru bunko created the new, more cinematic, more psychodramatic variety of comics that Tatsumi eventually named “gekiga” (literally, “dramatic pictures”). Journalists and academics in the West have trumpeted him as a countercultural hero and the father of alternative manga. If the title of “god” did not already belong to Tezuka Osamu, then Tatsumi might have even had a shot at divination.

But seventeen years ago, when Tatsumi began writing A Drifting Life, “don gekiga” was sliding down the slope of obscurity. After 1983, his magazine serials had become few and far between. For a year beginning in 1986, he did layouts and penciling for Mizuki Shigeru. In the meantime he ran a used manga bookstore in Jinbochō named “Don Comic,” opened in 1984. Shūeisha (publisher of Shōnen Jump) hired him to illustrate one book on “international travel troubles” (1989) and another on understanding criminal law (1994). His main work during the 1990s was illustrating the “Buddhist Comics” series from Suzuki Shuppan, a publisher of children’s books since the 1950s. In the years just before and while writing his own life story, Tatsumi was drawing those of Bodhidharma, Kūkai, and Saichō, as well as introductions to shūgendō (mountain asceticism) and various deities from the Tibetan-Esoteric pantheon. These books are easy to find, though one hardly ever sees them stocked with the artist’s other manga. The “Don Comic” store converted to mail order in 2002. A website still existed online in 2010, there for all to see how Tatsumi made a living before the Drawn & Quarterly books set him free. But now it is gone. Looking back, the only hints of the future were the one French (1983), one Spanish (1984), and one American edition (1987) of his work circulating in small print-runs overseas.[1]

According to Tatsumi’s postscript in A Drifting Life’s Japanese edition, the idea of an autobiography came from Asakawa Mitsuhiro, a scholar and editor who has been instrumental in the reappraisal of Tatsumi and kashihon [rental book] gekiga, as well as artists like Matsumoto Masahiko and Katsumata Susumu.[2] Asakawa was an editor at Garo during its tumultuous last days before becoming one of the helmsmen of Seirinkōgeisha in 1997 and helping to form its flagship publication Ax in 1998. In the mid 1990s, Asakawa worked as an editor for Mandarake, the giant used-manga and related collectibles chain. It was then that he approached Tatsumi about an autobiographical serial for the store’s quarterly auction catalogue. The first chapter appeared in early 1995. This might help explain the nature of A Drifting Life. Some have commented on how the waterfall of names and comics titles throughout the book gives it a grounded, naturalistic feel. If their number and obscurity sometimes alienate, however, it is helpful to remember that A Drifting Life was created by an artist who was running a used manga bookstore, that it first appeared in a periodical for hardcore collectors, and that it was initially under the editorial guidance of a committed manga researcher. Tatsumi continued working with Mandarake after Asakawa left the company around the summer of 1995. The last chapter of his autobiography appeared in 2006, bringing to a close twelve years of work. A Drifting Life was collected and published as a twovolume set by Seirinkōgeisha in 2008, again under Asakawa’s editorship, just as Tatsumi’s star was beginning to rise in the West.

While I recognize its importance, I have always found the popularity of A Drifting Life a little baffling. The kunstelleroman genre is usually pleasing, but this is not the strongest example. There is a lot of talking on topics of no dramatic interest. The drawing does what it needs to do to convey information, but rarely more than that. Some of the characters have charisma, but I am not sure why a reader would care about them if not already enamored with comics. For me, the book’s main attraction is as a historical resource. When I am writing about kashihon manga, it rarely leaves my desk. There is a trove of information not available elsewhere, and Tatsumi’s lively rendering of 1950s Osaka kashihon publishing gives body and color to that otherwise spottily documented era.

That said, the book is not impeccable as art history. Indispensable, yes, but whether by forgetfulness or carelessness, some things Tatsumi has gotten wrong. Take for example the story of the making of his book Black Blizzard (1956), the supposedly breakthrough work in the language of gekiga. Tatsumi writes that it was inspired by a short story by crime writer Shimada Kazuo, from whom he got the motif of the handcuffed escape.[3] In fact, he got much more than the motif. Black Blizzard is a near-complete adaptation – uncredited and unauthorized – of Shimada’s “Black Rainbow,” a short story published originally in Kōdansha’s King in 1950, then reprinted in top mystery magazine Hōseki in 1953. This might seem a quibble as far as the wider history of manga and Tatsumi’s reputation are concerned. But given the pivotal position of Black Blizzard in Tatsumi’s own coming-of-age as an artist, and the way Tatsumi depicts its creation in A Drifting Life as a romantic moment ex-nihilo, the fact of adaptation deserves emphasis at the very least for sobriety’s sake.[4]

It is also suggestive given subsequent developments. For example, it is traditionally said that Tatsumi first used the name “Gekiga Studio” (“Gekiga kōbō”) in the winter of 1957, with the publication of the short thriller “Ghost Taxi” in The Street. This Tatsumi repeats in A Drifting Life.[5] As he points out elsewhere however, already in the spring of that year, in his book The Witness (Mokugekisha), Tatsumi credits the fictional “Gekiga Scenario Studio” for the script, and himself for the job of “gekigaka,” or “gekiga-ization.”[6] In 1959, according to A Drifting Life, Tatsumi began adapting scripts from Scenario magazine (again unauthorized and uncredited), but clearly the idea was already at play in 1957, if not in 1956 when he plucked Shimada’s text.[7] “Gekiga” is usually translated “dramatic pictures,” but perhaps something like “dramatic visualizations” or “pictorial dramatizations” is more suggestive of Tatsumi’s parasitic relationship to mass entertainment. It might also better capture the various quasi-cinematic (compositional devices) and pseudo-cinematic (fictional scriptwriters) features that were part of gekiga from before the term’s coinage. What A Drifting Life suggests – that the term was invented in late 1957, just before Tatsumi moved to Tokyo, in response to the anti-comics movement, in order to differentiate his work from manga for children – is two parts false and otherwise incomplete as an explanation.[8]

Other questions surround Tatsumi’s relationship to American comics. Postwar manga’s debt to American comics is generally downplayed in Japanese scholarship, I think mainly because of ignorance about non-Japanese comics rather than some conservative desire to see manga as nationally autonomous. The impact of American material on figures like Tezuka Osamu, Saitō Takao, and Mizuki Shigeru is well-known, even if under-researched, but the legacy of G.I. reading material does not stop with them. Tatsumi, who grew up next to Itami Air Base when it was an American facility, and picked up “ten cent comics” dumped on area used bookstores, opens up this can of worms by using American comics as his main foil to describe one of the distinctive aesthetic qualities of gekiga: synchronization between image and time. “American comics,” he writes, “have long streams of dialogue in panels that are full of action. That means the action is paused while you read the long dialogue.”[9] His idea is to shorten each panel’s dialogue and simplify the background so that reading and viewing time are more or less synchronous with the time that it would take for the depicted action to happen. The goal is greater suturing: to bring the reader’s living time in line with the narrative’s time, and thereby increase the potential for identification and suspense.

As a statement of what Tatsumi was trying to achieve in the 1950s, this passage is somewhat useful. As an art historical comparison, however, it is a mess. The cover of the book in young Tatsumi’s hands in A Drifting Life clearly reads Unknown Soldier.[10]  This Joe Kubert character was first introduced in DC Comics in 1966, and there is no independent comic titled as such until 1977. In turn, the fight scenes in Kubert’s work look like a Jack Kirby or Kirby-inspired Marvel title from the 1960s. Obviously, Tatsumi could not have been reading any of these in the mid 1950s. For an artist who knows the history of early postwar manga like the back of his hand, this anachronism is striking, but given the marginal status of American comics in Japan, not at all surprising. Granted, fifties action comics are also typically wordy and, for that reason, in many cases non-synchronized. But ironically, it is often fight scenes that are rendered more or less in the way Tatsumi recommends here for his new manga-that-is-not-manga. What is more, the most obvious appropriations from American comics in Tatsumi’s work from the mid- 1950s are just such synchronized punches and kicks. Clearly, there is some research and rethinking to be done on this topic, but A Drifting Life is probably not the best guide.

Let me close with one other general observation. Considering Tatsumi’s reputation in North America as countercultural hero and the father of “alternative manga,” it is important to keep in the mind the central position of Tezuka Osamu in A Drifting Life. He is there from the very beginning, his person and his works appearing over and over again in the book’s first chapters. This is even more true in the original Mandarake version, where the chapter on Tezuka’s death, which appears as an epilogue in the later collected book editions, actually opens A Drifting Life. According to Tatsumi’s postscript, the shift was proposed by Adrian Tomine, who first brought Tatsumi to the attention of Drawn & Quarterly.

The success of Tatsumi then and now depends on his being part of an orthodox Tezuka-centric lineage of postwar manga. Tezuka is clearly in the DNA of his work and artistic identity. Even the reorganized book edition of A Drifting Life starts with his brother, Sakurai Shōichi, bringing home a copy of Lost World. The early chapters bubble with love for Tezuka and Ōshiro Noboru, another artist of tradition. The monthly Manga Shōnen, home to Tezuka’s Jungle Emperor, stokes Tatsumi’s burgeoning manga passions. One of the first publishers he seeks out in Osaka after being dropped by Tokyo’s Tsuru Shobō is Tōkōdō, publisher of Crime and PunishmentPinocchioManga College, and many other Tezuka titles. In other words, only after first failing with Tokyo and then with Tezuka’s former publisher in Osaka did Tatsumi turn to Hinomaru, and only then by accident. The result was fortuitous, but note that Tatsumi never desired Osaka obscurity, however it might have benefited his art. He moved to Tokyo as soon as it was financially feasible. His later life was further crisscrossed by contact with Tezuka; the two used the same Jinbochō café for work, and took a trip together to Angouleme, France in 1982. Tatsumi might have taken the manga medium in directions Tezuka never did, but in my opinion he never truly left a Tezuka-centered universe of drawing and visual story-telling.

When Drawn & Quarterly first started publishing Tatsumi’s work in 2005, the picture most people formed was of an ally of outsiders and losers: small factory workers, window washers, sewer cleaners, and impotent aging office men. This image has defined at least the North American reception of Tatsumi’s work. But it is never a good idea to take an artist’s work as a direct expression of his or her self-understanding or life trajectory. Tatsumi always wanted to be at the center. For a long time he was not. And now he is, again.

[1] On this period, see Tatsumi Yoshihiro, Gekiga kurashi (Living the gekiga life) (Tokyo: Hon no zasshi-sha, 2010), 329-51.

[2] Tatsumi Yoshihiro, ‘Gekiga kibun’ (Gekiga mood),Gekiga hyōryū, 2 vols. (Tokyo: Seirinkōgeisha, 2009), 2:408-11.

[3] Tatsumi, A Drifting Life, 533; Gekiga hyōryū, 2:107.

[4] Ibid., 544-6; 2:118-20. On this topic, see Ryan Holmberg, “Tatsumi Yoshihiro’s ‘Black Rainbow’,” The Comics Journal (July 2011),

[5] Ibid., 651; 2:225.

[6] Tatsumi, Gekiga kurashi, 234.

[7] On Tatsumi and Scenario, see A Drifting Life, 801-2, 812; Gekiga hyōryū, 2:375-6, 386.  See also Tatsumi and Kashihon manga-shi kenkyūkai, “Tatsumi Yoshihiro intabyuu: Kashihon manga to gekiga hyōgen o megutte” (Interview with Tatsumi Yoshihiro: On rental-book manga and gekiga), Kashihon manga-shi kenkyū (Studies in the history of rental-book manga), no. 6 (October 2001): 23.

[8] Tatsumi, A Drifting Life, 622-630; Gekiga hyōryū, 2:196-204.

[9] Ibid., 624; 2:198.

[10] Ibid.