Yoshihiro Tatsumi (辰巳 ヨシヒロ): A Drifting Life
Review by David White
A Drifting Life is a compelling autobiography in manga that covers fifteen years in Yoshihiro Tatsumi's life, detailing how he became a manga artist and one of the architects of a new kind of realism in manga known as gekiga ("dramatic pictures").
The story begins with the defeat of Japan at the end of World War Two, and then progresses to postwar Osaka and the author's childhood. We then follow Tatsumi's alter ego, "Katsumi Hiroshi," as he moves through childhood and into adolescence, gradually learning and improving as a manga artist and then eventually becoming more in demand as time goes by.
He also details the sometimes nasty rivalry between different publishing houses and his sense of loyalty to them. The author's family troubles and economic problems are thoughtfully sketched, in particular his parent's troubled marriage and his father's struggle to make a decent living in the postwar era. His relationship with his brother Okimasa is complex - Okimasa must fight his own battle with pleurisy and his struggle to obtain affordable medicine, but at the same time is a manga artist in his own right, and jealous of his younger brother Hiroshi who is more successful.
This monumental work (800-plus pages) focuses on the author's journey through manga in many senses - he lives and breathes manga, and the story here is of course presented through the medium. He also weaves in the history of postwar Japan through cultural events, notable news, and the odd political event.
The historical asides are wonderful and add interesting diversions to the story: for example, in the immediate postwar period itinerant picture storytellers (akin to street theater) for children were incredibly popular, with some of these street storytellers even going on to become manga artists themselves. As the reader progresses through the book, you can see and feel Japan getting back on its feet economically and socially just as the writer himself is growing up on the page.
Tatsumi pulls in many references to a rapidly changing media and society; there are also many cultural references to domestic and foreign movies - the powerful influence of the cinema on the creators of manga is palpable - and singers such as a young Misora Hibari, to give a sense of a society truly undergoing drastic changes. The media itself was also changing - while movies were enjoying a massive boom, the weekly gossip magazines so beloved in Japan were just making their appearance at this time. In Tatsumi's skilled hands, these simple but important landmarks in time come alive.
This is not a roller-coaster ride of a book; the pace is deliberate and the story takes time to get into. It is refreshing to see the author (in the manga) growing up in a simpler world - not a paradisiacal world by any means, with poverty and the beginning of environmental problems caused by rapid economic growth that he hints at briefly - a world that is not dominated by smart phones and the internet, where the power of TV is only just beginning, and where the children revel in their imaginations and creative abilities. The author does what the title of the book suggests - he sometimes drifts through life, and even with his devotion to manga and creativity, he sometimes allows events to carry him forward rather than tackle them head-on. It is the mundane, everyday things that may put off some readers, but then we are witness to his bursts of creativity followed by short periods of self doubt, and it is in this humdrum existence, so close to reality, that the appeal of the book lies.
The publisher has added an appendix that includes translations of panels where lengthier Japanese text appears. This is fine in itself but with the book at a hefty 840 pages this makes flipping back and forth annoying. However, this is a minor point that does not take away from the enjoyment of the book.
Abandon the Old in Tokyo
Review by David White
This is a dark but compelling compilation of short vignettes done in the gekiga style pioneered by Yoshihiro Tatsumi; although the literal translation of gekiga means "dramatic pictures," "graphic novel" is arguably the best translation.
This work is so compelling that I reread the book almost as soon as I had finished it, feeling that I had missed something on an initial reading. Tatsumi’s stories are set in the urban underbelly of postwar Japan in the late 1960's/early 1970's (and the stories have not dated at all) and view society very much through the eyes of laborers and/or those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
The Japan portrayed is a gritty, hungry society on the brink of phenomenal social and economic change, a change that the characters can see and sense but perhaps cannot partake in. The stories also function as a commentary on the tough lives of salarymen, in particular the hellish commutes endured (together with wonderful graphics depicting this, showing that little has changed on that front). The eight stories in this collection are bookended by an introduction by Koji Suzuki and an interview with the author.
The title story, "Abandon the Old in Tokyo," concerns an aging mother who nags her grown son to look after her. But as he recalls that he was basically abandoned as a child and had to fend for himself, his anger increases until he eventually abandons her in a cramped apartment. "Unpaid" is about a man who loses his business and the desperation he gets wrapped up in to try to save his financial situation while losing all sense of dignity.
"The Hole" concerns a woman who has been scarred and wishes to take revenge on men. She sets a trap and a man falls into a hole on the ground, unable to escape. In other words, the stories are grim, gritty, and also show what lengths humans will go to in order to obtain money, and there is the sense that anything new is good, and anything old, whether material or, in this case, an old woman, is useless and unwanted.
This is not a collection of uplifting stories, but each is compelling in its own way, and they make for quick, easy reads. The emphasis is squarely on human nature and its foibles - the people in these stories are equally greedy, weak, miserly, bitter, and most certainly flawed, but a strand of black humor also threads through the stories. Graphic and somewhat brutally frank at times, and certainly aimed at an adult readership, through all the tragedy and absurdity Tatsumi manages to express the brutality, banality, but also (black) humor in everyday life. Readable, amusing, and quite unique.